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Conflict resolution in the workplace.

A Guide to Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

Every workplace will undoubtedly experience conflict. Whether it is a conflict situation between colleagues or a dispute between a customer and a service provider, conflict is inevitable. Therefore, it is vital to have conflict resolution skills to mitigate the conflict between the involved parties as professionals.

Conflict management skills are an essential skill set for managers, particularly those in small businesses where conflicts could impact the office environment or hinder the company’s goals. Of course, how you handle disagreements will vary depending on your preferences, your personality and your experience as a manager. Still, there are a series of conflict resolution strategies that you can use to help you manage and resolve disagreements. When managing conflict in the workplace, you can find yourself in a situation where emotions between staff members are high, relationships are damaged, and employees are unhappy and unmotivated. Good management is about providing support, showing assertiveness, improving relationships, resolving issues, and resolving conflict situations.

It is common to find conflict between stakeholders, staff members or customers in the workplace, particularly in a project management space. This is because projects often lead to change and uncertainty, which can heighten emotions and make people more sensitive to changes in their environment. This is why early stakeholder engagement, stakeholder analysis and a strong communications strategy are critical to successfully delivering projects. For example, suppose you are about to embark upon a project or are in the implementation phase, and you are finding lots of conflict situations arising. In that case, you may want to consider how you manage stakeholder engagement in the future.

The five conflict resolution strategies

There are five primary strategies for conflict resolution that you should consider when looking to resolve conflict at your workplace. Each method has its pros and cons, and the one you choose will depend wholly on the situation at hand and determine which strategy is likely to be the most effective. In this article, we review the five techniques in more detail. These strategies come from the Thomas Kilmann model, developed to show human beings’ natural approaches to conflict resolution. The model also discusses the fact that people use two modes to try and resolve conflict. These are assertiveness and cooperativeness. Each of the five conflict resolution strategies uses one or the other, or a combination of both. Individuals tend to prefer or favour one of the five strategies as their natural response to conflict.

Avoidance

Avoidance is a strategy of conflict resolution whereby one person avoids and ignores the conflict. This conflict resolution strategy is commonly found when the confrontation is very uncomfortable for the person involved. Whilst this may seem like the easiest method of conflict resolution, it does not resolve the issue at hand, and the conflict is likely to arise again. Furthermore, the avoidance strategy uses neither assertiveness nor cooperativeness. Therefore, it is not an advisable method to actively use. It will, however, be a strategy you see in the workplace very frequently. As a manager, if you identify that avoidance is relied upon to reduce conflict, you should approach the situation delicately and try to encourage a strategy that adopts a more cooperative approach.

Competition

Competing is a strategy of conflict resolution whereby each person aims to win. In this instance, two parties compete to win and are not looking to compromise or cooperate. This type of conflict resolution strategy requires assertiveness from each person and no cooperativeness. As you can imagine, when this strategy is adopted, only one person can get what they want. This inevitably leads to the conflict resurfacing, as the losing party will not be satisfied with the outcome.

Accommodation

Accommodating is a conflict resolution strategy whereby one person accommodates the requests or demands of the other party. While this can seem like an effective way to resolve conflict and reduce visible friction in the workplace, it can lead to conflict resurfacing at a later date. The accommodating person is not getting what they want. Frequently when a more dominant personality demands a change, the less confident person may wish to accommodate their demands as they are not confident communicators or want to keep the peace. Accommodating is about cooperativeness, but with too little assertiveness from the side of the accommodator.

Compromise

Compromising is a strategy whereby an acceptable middle ground is identified. This solution will be partly satisfactory to both of the parties involved in the conflict. It is not the ideal solution as neither party gets what they want, but it can be considered fair in the workplace where no solution fully satisfies all parties involved in the conflict. Compromises are often used as a conflict resolution strategy, but if there is a way for the two parties to collaborate, this is the preferred and most effective approach.

Collaboration

Collaborating is the preferred conflict resolution strategy to use in the workplace. It allows all parties to give input and work together to develop a solution that they can agree with and that satisfies their own needs and the needs of their colleague. Collaboration is the preferred strategy for conflict resolution because it allows all parties involved to meet their requirements without compromising, accommodating, or competing. It provides for an equal combination of assertiveness and cooperativeness from everybody involved. It is the method with the highest success rate for resolving conflict and ensuring it does not reoccur later due to unmet needs. Team leaders can help facilitate conversations that develop collaboration between conflicting people.

A managers role in resolving conflict

As a manager in a workplace, particularly in an ever-changing environment, it is all too familiar for two or more parties to enter into a conflict situation. As a manager responsible for a problem over which two colleagues are fighting, it is best to face the conflict head-on and act as a neutral third party to encourage a constructive conversation. Managers must help find common ground between the team members and get to the root cause of the conflict.

Listen to both sides

The first and most critical step is to acknowledge and listen to the perspective of each person. It is crucial to practice active listening and show that you fully understand each team member’s views and know what their feelings are and why they are feeling this way. Reassure each person that you are a neutral third party and that you want to resolve the workplace conflict to foster a healthy relationship between all parties and reach a positive outcome. To show you are practising active listening, use the correct body language; give eye contact, show you are listening by nodding and using facial expressions that show you empathise with their concerns. Please focus on the root cause of the disagreements and the emotions it has brought up. At this stage, do not suggest solutions until you have fully understood the dispute from both sides.

Identify the cause of the conflict

Once you have spoken to each party involved in the conflict, you can identify the underlying problem. You may find the dispute has a simple solution, but the frustration around the disagreement is what has fuelled the majority of the conflict. Both parties may be angry and sensitive to criticism or maybe looking to blame the other for the cause of the disagreement rather than looking for healthy ways to mediate. As the manager, once you have identified the cause of the conflict, it will be much easier for you to facilitate a healthy conversation and identify solutions.

Ask each party for a preferred solution

Whilst listening to each person’s point of view, you should ask them how they could improve the situation and resolve it. Listen to their words carefully and assess their body language to identify whether their solution is constructive and whether it leads to an outcome that satisfies both parties. It is perfectly plausible that they may have good ideas, but both sides have resisted suggestions due to a damaged relationship.

Assess and suggest a change

You can now suggest solutions that you feel will benefit each party whilst also considering the organisational goals. If intense emotions are at play, you must communicate with empathy and show each team member that you have carefully considered their point of view. Your goal is to focus on problem-solving to foster a healthy relationship. Using a calm tone and concentrating on your nonverbal communication, you can demonstrate that you have carefully considered their needs and your own needs and that of the company.

Agree on a way forward

Once you have identified a solution that suits both people, you need to get them to agree. It is an excellent idea to develop a constructive plan if tensions arise in the future. Each party should forgive the other at this stage, and all pressure should be relieved. If one party is still angry deep down, this will not resolve the conflict. They should talk openly, describe their feelings and agree that the conflict at work will no longer be an issue. Please pay attention to how they both view the dispute and ensure they do not avoid dealing with any actions they take away from the meeting.

How to resolve conflict in a real-life scenario

For the article, let us use an example to show how you can use conflict resolution skills in a real-life scenario. You are a Project Manager who is managing two teams in a small business. One employee from one of the teams has expressed to you that they are unhappy with a colleague’s behaviour in the other team. They have accused the employee of starting arguments during meetings over the scoring of a risk that they feel is too high. The employee who has raised the issue tells you that they have tried to agree and negotiate a slight reduction in the risk scoring but that they must hold their ground as they do not think the other employee is correct. Both people are now angry and are unable to communicate on a professional level. The disagreement between them directly affects the broader teams, who have started to fear conflict in every cross-team meeting. In the first instance, you listen actively to their concerns, which helps give you a better understanding of their current relationship.

To solve the problem, you first talk to the other person and get their side of the story. Whilst having a conversation with the other person, you practice active listening and find out that there are many past conflicts between these two people, and the scoring of the risk is not the problem at all. Instead, the issue traces its origins to previous disagreements between the two members of staff. At first, the second person is not interested in resolving the problem and does not feel that the issue warrants a mediation. You explain to them that although you empathise with their situation, it is essential to resolve conflict in the workplace and work with you to improve the work environment for all team members. Finally, after highlighting how the dispute is making others feel, the person agrees to work out a way to resolve the conflict.

You review the conflict resolution strategies available to you and decide that collaboration is the correct strategy to use here. You set up a meeting with both people and outline what you understand to be the problem. You identify that there are feelings of anger on both sides and that this is causing disputes over minor project issues. You explain to each person that the business cannot function without resolving this conflict and that you want to support both of them. Achieving this requires honesty from both sides and an understanding of each other’s feelings and emotions. They manage to talk openly about their disagreements, and they agree that they need to move on from their past workplace conflicts.

This example shows the correct way to handle conflict and allows employees to work towards a solution collaboratively.

Conflict resolution skills

Conflicts are inevitable at work, particularly team conflict. It is vital to manage this type of behaviour as managers. Fostering a positive work culture can be hugely empowering, improving productivity and increasing motivation.

As a manager, view conflict as a way to improve your core skills. Your own needs can be met as part of conflict management, as well as the needs of your business. It can be hard to manage relationships and find a resolution that benefits all people. Still, by using the proper conflict resolution strategy, you can reduce workplace conflict, reduce hurt feelings and build strong working relationships in your team and the wider organisation. Identifying the cause of the problem is half of the battle and using assertiveness to create and then deliver a solution that works for all people involved is the best way forward to resolve conflict.


Conflict is inevitable. It’s how you handle it that matters

Elite provides expert conflict resolution training to organisations worldwide, helping them train staff to manage and constructively resolve conflicts. Our trainers are experts in their field, with years of experience working for some of the most prestigious companies worldwide. They know what works, and they know what doesn’t work when it comes to resolving conflict – so if your organisation requires assistance, we can help you develop the skills needed for successful conflict resolution.

We offer bespoke packages designed specifically for your organisation’s needs – whether that be one-off sessions or ongoing support – our team will tailor a package just for you! Whether you need an experienced trainer on-site or want us to run courses remotely, we’ll make sure everything runs smoothly from start to finish.

Get in touch now or call us on 0141 222 2227.

The change curve is a model that shows how people respond to change. Based on research into grief, there are four stages: denial, anger, exploration and acceptance. (Photo: Envato)

A Guide to the Kubler Ross Change Curve

Change is an inevitable part of all businesses. Whether it is to improve performance, increase sales or improve customer experience, change has to happen at some point. For that reason, part and parcel of many projects is the need to implement change. An organisation hires project managers to implement a new process, improve an old system, or develop new and more efficient ways of working. Whatever the goal or objectives of the project are, managing the change process is a crucial skill that project professionals need to tackle carefully from the very beginning of the project lifecycle to ensure successful implementation.

Kübler-Ross

The Kübler-Ross Change curve comes from the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who developed a theory you may know as the ‘Five Stages of Grief’ outlined in her book ‘On Death and Dying‘. These five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and they identify the most commonly found emotions that people experience as they go through the journey of bereavement. After the publication of Kubler-Ross’s work, the model was widely acknowledged with accurately indicating the stages of emotions during grief. The model’s accuracy was also cited when considering emotions following any change, upheaval or trauma such as illness or other sufferings.

The Kubler-Ross Change curve for change management is a variation of these five stages of grief, built to identify the emotions of employees of an organisation or impacted stakeholders of a project as changes are implemented in their environment. It is used as a change management model guideline for organisations.

Project management is so frequently associated with organisational change, and one of the most common challenges that project managers face is getting staff accustomed to the changes they implement. It isn’t enough to list the positives of the new changes, even if it saves money and makes their lives one thousand times easier. Many people are used to doing things a certain way and do not want to change; new solutions are not always welcomed. The change curve gives project professionals a visual and detailed understanding of how the affected employees will likely feel about the change and how they will cope with the transition. For this reason, it is especially relevant to businesses experiencing change management. It is not simply enough to implement changes if the people operating the business are not on board; they must be equally accepting and willing to learn the new changes put in place. The Change Curve model can help project professionals support people through the change procedure.

As a Project Manager, the Change Curve should be considered at the beginning of the change management process to identify and plan mitigation for the risk of employees not accepting the change. Transparent and frequent stakeholder engagement at the start of the project can help alleviate problems in the early stages of the change process.

The Change Curve

Stage 1 – Shock

The first stage in the Kubler-Ross model is the initial shock or denial. Shock occurs when affected parties are informed of the intended change and are likely to experience an adverse reaction. During this stage, it is common for individuals to be inflexible and possibly even refuse the idea of the change as they aim to maintain the status quo. The project team needs to provide as many details as possible and offer support, outline the objectives and reasoning behind the change, assess the buy-in they have from the stakeholders, and allow them time to adjust to the news. By carefully considering the reactions at this stage, thorough planning can be made for the following stages to try and alleviate or reduce opposition as much as possible.

At this stage, good communication is essential. Setting up regular meetings and workshops with stakeholders is a good idea as it gives them a forum to ask questions, gather more information, and why they need to accept the change.

We can look at an example of a change management project where the Kubler Ross Change Curve would effectively predict and mitigate opposition to change. Let’s say you are a Project Manager who a company has hired to deliver savings by simplifying overly complex processes that are outdated and rely on paper, moving the services online. As the new change processes are more time-efficient, you identify that you do not need as many staff and will be making redundancies of 10% of the workforce.

When announcing this information to the affected people, they will experience shock. The employees have always done their work a certain way, and they do not see why it needs to change. They are also shocked that some of them will be made redundant.

Stage 2 – Disruption

During the second stage of the change curve or the ‘Anger’ stage, if you consider the original Kubler Ross model, it is common to see people experience negative moods such as anger, fear, denial, and resentment. You are likely to see active or passive resistance to the change and rejection of acceptance at this stage. Early risk management can help the Project Manager through this stage by carefully considering how each stakeholder might react at the onset of the project. The project manager should research and evidence their decisions as well as prepare for brutal questioning. There are likely always going to be critics to change in the workplace, but well-researched information can help the project team respond to questions and reduce anger.

It is common for the employees at risk of redundancy to fight back against the idea or stay in denial, insisting that the change will not happen or should not occur. Some employees may seek Union involvement and may reach out to internal management and the project staff involved to argue against change. In extreme cases, some will not work and demand more information or dispute the facts set out in the business case. At this stage, the Project Manager needs to have access to the evidence that helped them make the project decisions and confidently express the reasoning behind the change being implemented. Without a solid rationale behind the change and a clear outline of the project benefits, there is a chance that the project may be successfully challenged. Careful and decisive leadership is required at this stage from the project team to reduce anger and allow the change process to move to the next step. This stage can also incorporate depression and bargaining as people try to understand what is expected of them as part of the transition while also suggesting alternative ideas that better suit them. In the concept of grief, we bargain by saying things like, ‘If I survive this, I will never be depressed again, I promise.’ In the workplace, it can be things such as ‘We will improve performance as long as we don’t have to go through this change,’ it cannot be relied upon as a solution in place of the new change. The change curve shows that the curve moves upwards after this stage as people embrace the change, so getting through this stage is difficult, but the positives are soon realised.

Stage 3 – Exploration

During the third phase, stakeholders will begin to accept the idea of the change, and this gives way to the ‘testing’ phase, a stage where feelings will become more positive and the team members delivering the change can breathe a sigh of relief. During this phase, stakeholders will be more willing to explore what the change means for them and start to prepare for transitions in procedure and question how they can better work with the changes. Anger is reduced, and the affected employees work with each other and the project team to understand the change. At this stage, Project Managers can give people some insight into what the change means for them and begin to initiate training that will support them with the implementation of the change and prepare the organisation for the change rollout. People will now be willing to address their knowledge gaps and work on problem-solving to help initiate the change.

Using our example, at this stage, you would begin to see employees asking more positive questions about the change and trying to find out what this means for them and how they start to adapt to the change and use it in their work. They will be willing to attend training sessions and begin to adapt early changes into their work, and overall communication becomes more positive and in control. They will show resilience and understanding as they adjust.

Stage 4 – Rebuilding

At Stage 4, the change is initiated and integrated into the organisation as acceptance of the change is found more frequently among the staff. People embrace the change, and the benefits set out at the start of the project are realised as productivity increases. Benefit realisation workshops can help the Project Manager identify the project’s success, get positive feedback from stakeholders and begin to close down the project.

Using our example, we now have fully integrated digital services in the organisation, and the remaining staff members are trained on how to integrate this into their work. They understand their role, can see the benefits, and their performance will improve. They are pleased that the procedures are more straightforward, customers are also pleased that they can use digital services, which have reduced waiting times and improved their overall customer experience.

The Change Curve – Conclusion

Across organisations, change is always inevitable. As technology advances and the requirements of organisations change over time, organisational change needs to be secured to ensure businesses are running efficiently for both staff and the customers. Change management is frequently not appropriately run and is a leading cause of project failures.

Using the change curve model helps organisations who are undertaking change understand how people are likely to handle the journey through the change on an emotional level, broken down into easier to understand phases. It helps predict behaviour, mitigate the risk of disruption and increase the likelihood that the change will be implemented successfully following acceptance from staff. The change curve is an excellent tool for change management professionals to review at the start of any project. It helps to identify likely questions, risks, and reactions to change, allowing them to curve the change procedure in their favour.

The change curve is a guideline, and there are situations where employees’ response will not precisely mirror the Kubler Ross change curve model. Still, it is a valuable guideline for reducing frustration and confusion and helping the project leaders control the change process. It has a track record of being a highly successful model. There are variants of the Kübler-Ross change curve, some with additional stages added to the curve to highlight each stage people might go through during the transition in more depth. Many businesses have widely accepted the change curve as a change implementation tool. The curve is a great visual indicator of the journey people go on as they experience change. Therefore, the change curve is a handy tool and should always be considered when embarking upon a change that will impact others professionally and emotionally.


Elite are experts in change management training. We train change management practitioners worldwide, and in 2020 Elite was awarded Sole Supplier status to the Scottish Government for Project and Programme Management learning. Do you want to upskill or refresh your change management knowledge? Browse our change management portfolio. Alternatively, if you’d rather speak to a training consultant, call us on 0141 222 2227.