Conflict management

Conflict in the workplace is inevitable. Consider the challenge of working with people from different backgrounds, with different styles, day after day, dealing with a myriad of problems, and the pace of work. Under these conditions, conflict seems only natural. However, conflict doesn’t have to be negative. When handled properly, it can actually be beneficial.

Resolving conflict

To manage conflict effectively you must be a skilled communicator. That includes creating an open communication environment in your unit by encouraging employees to talk about work issues. Listening to employee concerns will foster an open environment. Make sure you really understand what employees are saying by asking questions and focusing on their perception of the problem. To learn more about communication skills, see Communication.

Your immediate response to conflict situations is essential, no matter what the details. Here are some tips you can use when faced with employees who can’t resolve their own conflicts.

  • Acknowledge that a difficult situation exists. Honesty and clear communication play an important role in the resolution process. Acquaint yourself with what’s happening and be open about the problem.
  • Let individuals express their feelings. Some feelings of anger and/or hurt usually accompany conflict situations. Before any kind of problem-solving can take place, these emotions should be expressed and acknowledged.
  • Define the problem. What is the stated problem? What is the negative impact on the work or relationships? Are differing personality styles part of the problem? Meet with employees separately at first and question them about the situation.
  • Determine underlying need. The goal of conflict resolution is not to decide which person is right or wrong; the goal is to reach a solution that everyone can live with. Looking first for needs, rather than solutions, is a powerful tool for generating win/win options. To discover needs, you must try to find out why people want the solutions they initially proposed. Once you understand the advantages their solutions have for them, you have discovered their needs.
  • Find common areas of agreement, no matter how small. Begin building consensus – agreeing on the problem, the procedure to follow, worst fears, or some small change that can be made could be a step toward resolution.
  • Find solutions to satisfy needs. Problem-solve by generating multiple alternatives, then determine which actions will be taken. Make sure involved parties buy into actions. Total silence may be a sign of passive resistance – so be sure you get real agreement from everyone.
  • Determine follow-up you will take to monitor actions. You may want to schedule a follow-up meeting in about two weeks to determine how the parties are doing.
  • Determine what you’ll do if the conflict goes unresolved. If the conflict is causing a disruption in the department and it remains unresolved, you may need to explore other avenues. Contact the HR Service Center, or an outside facilitator (such as a representative from the Center for Work and Family Life) may be able to offer other insights on solving the problem. In some cases the conflict becomes a performance issue, and may become a topic for coaching sessions, performance appraisals, or disciplinary action.

Defusing anger

When you meet with someone who is angry, you can use the tools of effective listening to help defuse this anger. Nevertheless, when anger is directed at you, it is much more difficult to respond definitively because your own emotions are usually involved.

To effectively defuse anger, keep in mind the needs of the angry employee:

  • To vent. An angry person needs to let off steam and release the anger that may have been brewing for a long time – use your communication skills to allow the person to do this.
  • To get the listener’s attention. An angry person wants to know that you are paying attention – use your body language to show this.
  • To be heard. An angry person wants someone to listen to his/her point of view – acknowledge the feelings you hear so that the speaker knows you appreciate how angry s/he is, regardless of whether or not you agree with the employee.
  • To be understood. An angry person wants someone to appreciate how s/he feels – try to empathize with his/her experience so that s/he feels you understand the situation, and acknowledge his/her right to feel the way s/he does – again regardless of whether or not you agree with employee.

When you’re listening to an angry employee:

  • Be attentive and patient. Keep in mind that s/he will become less angry as you let him/her express him/herself.
  • Be sincere. Empathy and validation must be both honest and genuine.
  • Be calm. Try to remove your own emotions from the discussion. Remember that an angry person may say inflammatory things in the heat of the moment, but you do not have to react angrily.

The Center for Work and Family Life has a series of six videos dedicated to disarming rude, hostile and defensive behavior:

Managing Conflict track in TrojanLearn

  1. Login to TrojanLearn (trojanlearn.usc.edu) using your USC NetID
  2. Search by the title Leadership Advantage: Managing Conflict 2.0 and click on the link
  3. Register and launch the training