Unit 2: Best Practices for Conflict Resolution
Despite our best efforts, negative personal and dysfunctional conflict occurs in the workplace for all sorts of reasons, as we explored in Unit 1. Companies should swiftly respond to and resolve these conflicts to prevent them from damaging interpersonal relationships among their employees and clients. They should organize their procedures for resolving conflicts and responding to grievances into a protocol their employees can follow.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 3 hours.
2.1: Five Styles of Handling Conflict
Let's begin by exploring a tool Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann created in 1974, which describes five styles for handling conflict: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating. They based each style on an individual's appetite for assertiveness and cooperation. Understanding what you hope to gain when you face a workplace conflict or disagreement and what those around you wish to achieve will help you negotiate a beneficial solution. Here are the five elements of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument.
- Competing: People with a competing style play to win. While other employees may perceive them to be aggressive, assertive, bossy, or inconsiderate, competing individuals often do well when a swift decision is in order.
When you work with someone who has a competitive conflict style, remember they want to win, so position your ideas in a way that makes them think they are winning.
- Collaborating: Collaborators aim to create solutions where everyone wins. They take
time to think through all options before deciding and are known for their strong relationships with others. However, they are criticized for taking too much time and effort to make a decision. When you work with someone of this style, give them time and
space to think through different views and options before forcing them to make a decision.
- Compromising: In compromises, no one wins outright in a negotiation, but each side achieves something they can tolerate and loses something they would have preferred.
Politicians typically compromise by taking the best ideas from as many parties as possible to create an alternate solution. Keep in mind that parties that compromise may later resent having given up something they value. When you work with someone using
this style, decide what is important to you in the negotiation upfront.
- Avoiding: Conflict avoiders find any workaround to avoid conflict. Some may perceive conflict avoiders as uncaring, but they may just hope the conflict disappears. Conflict avoidance
can hurt relationships and business decisions because the perpetrators often avoid confronting the issue beyond the decision deadline. When you work with someone who avoids conflict, you may have to bring up the issues and suggest solutions.
- Accommodating: Accommodation allows the other party to win. This can be a good strategy if you feel you are on the wrong track or want to preserve a relationship. When you work with someone who is accommodating, you may have to ask them a lot of questions to discern what their needs are so you can address them.
- Competing: People with a competing style play to win. While other employees may perceive them to be aggressive, assertive, bossy, or inconsiderate, competing individuals often do well when a swift decision is in order. When you work with someone who has a competitive conflict style, remember they want to win, so position your ideas in a way that makes them think they are winning.
2.2: Methods of Conflict Resolution
Without appropriate intervention, dysfunctional conflict – caused by poor communication, biases, and personality disputes – can damage morale, workplace efficiencies, and general productivity. In this unit, we learn that it is rarely a good idea to rely on a court of law to resolve these issues. Litigation is time-consuming, costly, and takes a mental and emotional toll on everyone involved.
Resolving conflicts benefit from three established alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods. Each technique – negotiation, mediation, and arbitration – has advantages and disadvantages, but all are considered preferable to litigation. We learn about each type of ADR and when they are the preferred method individuals and organizations can use to resolve a dispute.
We often describe the discussions we enter to resolve a conflict or disagreement as a negotiation. The goal of negotiation is to establish an agreement among the two parties that have a stake in the outcome. The resolution should offer stakeholders common or agreed-upon terms and understandings. Negotiations do not need to be contentious or disagreeable.
For example, we participate in a subtle form of negotiation when we ask a coworker to turn down the volume on their computer, wear less perfume, or consider another perspective when making a decision. We succeed in negotiation when we express our views and the coworker agrees to change their behavior or make an accommodation. Often, the other person was unaware they were causing any discomfort. They agree to change because they value working in a comfortable, inclusive work environment.
Mediation is an alternative dispute resolution process that involves co-opting or hiring a neutral, third-party mediator who is amenable to both parties involved in the dispute. The mediator should help the parties understand each other's perspectives, work toward commonality, create an action plan to resolve the issue, and follow up with the parties to ensure peace is maintained.
Mediators should remain impartial during the discussions, which means they should allow each party to present their case and arguments fairly and accurately without appearing to favor one side over the other. For example, the mediator should not receive payment or services from one of the parties. They should not have or appear to have a conflict of interest or any connection that may lead one party to believe they are acting unfairly, such as a personal relationship, conviction, religious belief, or a future business opportunity. This makes sense; you would not want to hire someone to mediate a dispute if you believe they are friends with the other party or if you think they will gain financially if the dispute is resolved in a certain way.
In many disputes, such as legal disagreements, divorces, and other types of negotiated settlements, stakeholders hire an outside professional mediator to resolve their differences amicably. In the workplace, a professional from the human resources department often serves as the third-party mediator for disputes. However, since they are a company employee charged with resolving conflicts in the company's interests, many would argue they are not impartial.
Arbitration is a more formal method of alternative dispute resolution. Parties that disagree select a professional arbiter or panel of arbitrators, usually attorneys who specialize in arbitration, to resolve disputes outside the courtroom.
The arbitration process involves many of the same methods as a courtroom trial, including the presentation of evidence, statements from witnesses, a discussion of any relevant local laws or ordinances, and an examination of any signed legal documents, such as contracts, receipts for damages, and other evidence. The parties usually meet to discuss and present their arguments and evidence before the arbiter. The arbiter will then deliver their judgment, damages due, and a specific course of action within a specified time.
State law can dictate whether the settlement is binding (compared to non-binding), which means the parties have a legal obligation to follow through on the arbiter's decision or ruling. Companies interested in keeping disputes private typically prefer to undergo arbitration rather than a courtroom trial since the proceedings and settlement results do not become part of the public record, which anyone, including journalists, potential clients, and other interested parties, can access. The arbitration process tends to be less time-consuming and less expensive than a courtroom trial, although it can still be quite expensive for many participants.
Bringing a matter of dispute before a court of law in the form of litigation is a last resort for most organizations and companies. The process is usually expensive and time-consuming for everyone involved. The injured party can receive significant compensation for damages that another party caused them, but jury trials can be unpredictable. Putting potentially unethical or unlawful behavior in the public spotlight can also cause irreparable damage to an organization or the company's public reputation and future business.
It is generally wise for each party to hire an attorney who is well-versed in the law to represent their interests, whether they are individuals, organizations, or corporate entities. While expensive, attorneys are usually experts at presenting evidence clearly and convincingly to elicit a favorable and legally-binding verdict (decision) from the jury.
2.7: Understanding Each Party
Now that we have discussed some different ways individuals, organizations, and companies resolve conflicts or disagreement, let's explore some things to consider when arriving at a meaningful and lasting agreement or settlement. These apply no matter what method (negotiation, mediation, arbitration, or litigation) is used.
An essential first step to resolving a dispute or conflict is for each side to understand the other person's perspective and feelings about the situation. They should recognize the other party's needs and interests going forward. People generally want to know that the other person has heard and understood their thoughts and ideas despite their disagreement. This step may seem trivial, but it can be a critical component for generating a level of understanding and respect for each side and discovering an agreeable common goal.
Review the theories we discussed in Unit 1 about the underlying causes of conflict and the motivations and interests of the individuals involved. Understanding the other party's perspective – to know "where they are coming from" – can establish a sense of trust and convince each side that their differences may not be as significant or relevant as they first thought. By identifying the cause, they can create a clear path forward to benefit each side. The stakeholders may resolve their differences for the good of the organization or company without further action.
For example, the individuals may realize their disagreement stemmed from a lack of clear organizational structure, different understandings of task interdependence, confusion regarding staff hierarchy, or a lack of clarity regarding their roles and responsibilities may have caused the conflict. Divergent personality types may have caused them to approach the situation differently. Erroneous stereotypes, biases, or cultural misunderstandings may have caused them to act in an insensitive or boorish way. Different approaches to conflict – competitive, collaborative, compromising, avoiding, or accommodating – may have led them to react in ways that seemed objectionable.
2.8: Working toward a Common Goal
During the conflict resolution process, mediators should grasp each party's needs so they can find areas where the stakeholders share the same goals. Individuals who disagree can compromise by letting less important areas go and favoring items of greater priority. Each side also needs to trust the other party to have a frank discussion, keep sensitive information private, and keep their promises.
2.9: Planning to Reach a Common Goal
Once you have articulated and considered areas of agreement, common goals, and potential barriers, you should create a remediation work plan. As with any good plan, you should document your actions using tools like a project completion template. This allows stakeholders to disagree, find common ground, and determine a timeframe for completing tasks and responsibilities. The mediator should check in at various intervals to ensure everything is on track and make appropriate adjustments as needed.
2.10: Grievance Procedures
Responding to grievances and conflict are often stressful, for managers and employees alike. While most do not like to discuss conflict, think about this process as an opportunity to resolve misunderstandings and differences before they become contentious.