How to deal with workplace conflict: Four key steps

Your employees are adults, and they can handle a bit of conflict between themselves, right? Wrong, argues Paula Maidens, the managing director of HR consultancy Recruitment Coach. She says minor disagreements or misunderstandings can quickly escalate into full-blown conflict. This not only leaves you with feuding employees, but can affect your entire team.

Workplace conflict, left unmanaged, is a destructive force. Here’s Maiden’s four-step plan to dealing with it.

Step 1: What’s the issue here?

As soon as you are aware of a conflict in the workplace, you should approach the parties individually in a confidential and respectful manner to raise your concerns.

You should figure out the nature of the conflict, and make arrangements for a conflict resolution discussion if appropriate.

If it’s needed, arrange a time and location that both parties agree on have this conversation. Make sure they’re aware what the process involves from the beginning.

Step 2: Let them talk

The next step in uncovering the underlying issues is to listen to your employees talk during the scheduled discussion. 

This means allowing each employee the opportunity to have their say without any interruptions from you or the other party.

When both have had the opportunity to talk through their side of the problem, it is a good idea to summarise the key issues and concerns raised so that each party feels they were adequately heard e.g. “You are concerned about… Is this correct?”  

This is also the time to further explore the needs, wants and interests of each employee. There is a good chance that both parties will have common issues and this is where you can seek agreement on their importance.  

Step 3: What do they agree on?

This step is all about moving your feuding employees toward mutual agreement and understanding. The focus should be on generating options and developing solutions that both parties feel comfortable with. If you approach this step from the perspective of helping your employees best achieve their goals, you will find fewer obstacles stand in your way when trying to resolve the conflict.

Step 4: Lock it in

The final step is to encourage the employees to come to an agreement on what they feel is a fair course of action. Ask them the absolute minimum each requires of the other. Suggest specific solutions and see if they would solve the problem.

Once you hit upon something both parties can live with, set a date to check up. Let the parties know you’ll be following up on their efforts.  

Remember, the trick to conflict resolution is to stay neutral throughout the entire process so that neither employee feels that they have been unfairly treated. Most importantly, if the conflict is the result of a clear breach of policy (e.g. allegations of unlawful discrimination, harassment, bullying and racial or religious victimisation) or you don’t have the necessary skills to manage it in-house, seek additional advice as soon as possible.

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