Conflict resolution strategies for a harmonious workplace

Different emotions can lead to various interpretations
Conflict resolution strategies for a harmonious workplace
Conflict resolution

Did you feel unfairly treated following a performance review? Were you frustrated following a workload allocation? Did you feel excluded at work? Or did you feel that tense atmosphere within your team due to different expectations and preferences for task allocation?

You are not alone! Conflicts are not rare occurrences; they are a natural and inevitable part of human interactions, especially in complex environments like the workplace. Rapid changes in the workplace, such as technological advancements, organizational restructuring, shifts in work models, and changes in industry dynamics can indeed lead to increased conflict.

However, in addition to external and organizational factors, emotions play a significant role in the emergence, escalation, and resolution of conflicts. Emotions are at the core of human thinking and behavior. For example, experiencing strong emotions might lead to impulsive reactions and expression of feelings. This can then act as a trigger for disagreements and disputes.

Different emotions can lead to various interpretations and cause misunderstandings. They can bias our interpretations of others’ perspectives. However, when managed constructively, they can contribute to conflict prevention and resolution via healthy communication and mutual respect. As explained in Goleman’s model of Emotional Intelligence, although recognizing one’s own emotions is a key factor in managing conflict, recognizing others’ and managing these emotions can significantly enhance communication, defuse tension, and pave the way for effective conflict resolution.

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Is Conflict Unavoidable?

While it’s challenging to eliminate all sources of conflict, the intensity of conflict and its consequences can differ according to the way it is addressed, handled, and resolved. Conflicts within the workplace can arise due to a range of factors such as differing viewpoints, the competition for scarce resources, difficulties in communication, power imbalances, conflicting objectives like prioritizing safety over productivity, and the spread of inaccurate information.

The consequences can be at individual, team, and organizational levels. For example, staff might express decreased morale where prolonged conflicts can lead to stress and burnout. Decreased collaboration and teamwork can be observed. At the organizational level, conflicts can disrupt workflows, and create mistrust toward management. Interestingly, the consequences of group conflict can vary depending on the degree to which members differ in perceptions of the level of conflict in their groups. For example, research (Jenn et al. 2010) shows that when a group’s members perceive different levels of conflict, performance, and creativity in that group decrease.

Conflict resolution
Dr. Cakil Agnew

How can your organization benefit from conflicts?

Despite the initial negative connotations, conflicts can serve as catalysts for growth, innovation, and improved relationships. For example, a clash between different perspectives can spark critical thinking and lead to new ideas and creative solutions. In an interesting study on conflict, researchers showed that when task conflict was at a moderate level, teams were more innovative compared to low and high task conflict situations. (De Dreu, 2006).

Similarly, diverse perspectives can help organizations to avoid group thinking and encourage well-informed decision-making. Within a trust culture, addressing conflicts openly can strengthen co-worker relations and improve psychological safety. Conflicts arise most when there is a need to change. Highlighting the underlying issues can motivate individuals and organizations to improve their practices.

In their influential work ‘Getting to Yes,’ Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton (2006) present fundamental procedures for resolving conflicts in diverse scenarios, ensuring a strategy that benefits all parties involved.

Separate People from the Problem: Focus on the issue at hand rather than personal attributes or emotions.

Focus on Interests, Not Positions: Move beyond rigid stances and uncover the underlying interests that drive each party’s position.

Generate Options for Mutual Gain: Encourage brainstorming and creative thinking to generate a variety of potential solutions.

Use Objective Criteria: Base decisions on fair and objective standards rather than subjective judgments. Identify relevant criteria, benchmarks, or industry standards that can guide the decision-making process.

Overall, it suggests seeking mutual gains and creating agreements that satisfy the interests of all parties involved.  The collaborative and constructive approach aims for win-win outcomes while preserving relationships. Therefore, although understanding the root causes, addressing interests, and seeking mutually beneficial solutions can allow smoother navigation, if not addressed, conflicts can escalate and become more difficult to resolve, potentially damaging relationships and causing long-lasting negative effects.

Dr. Cakil Agnew is an Associate Professor in Psychology, Heriot-Watt University Dubai

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