Conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction, and the workplace is no exception. Countless factors contribute to conflicts in professional settings, ranging from miscommunication and differences in values to power struggles and organizational changes.
Conflict in teams can feel destabilizing and appear detrimental to culture and efficiency. However, with the right approach and tools, conflicts can be transformed into opportunities for growth, understanding, and collaboration.
As we explore the concept of conflict resolution, its origins, and the necessary steps to resolve conflicts, we can begin to fully understand the benefits it brings to the workplace.
Understanding Conflict Resolution
Conflict resolution refers to the process of addressing disagreements and finding mutually agreeable solutions. It aims to promote understanding, open communication, and productive problem-solving.
In the workplace, conflicts can arise between individuals, within teams, or due to broader organizational issues. These conflicts, if left unresolved, can negatively impact employee morale, teamwork, and ultimately, organizational success. Recognizing the importance of cultivating team capacity to engage in skilled conflict resolution is the first step toward creating a harmonious work environment.
Exploring Conflict Origins
To effectively resolve conflicts, it is crucial to understand their underlying causes. Conflicts in the workplace often stem from miscommunication, differences in values or goals, personal biases, power dynamics, or organizational changes.
For instance, a breakdown in communication can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts between team members working on a project. Similarly, when individuals with divergent values or goals collaborate, conflicts may arise due to contrasting approaches or priorities.
Recognizing and addressing these root causes is essential to prevent conflicts from escalating.
Essential Components of Conflict Resolution
Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”1 She says that interpersonal risk taking “refers to the experience of feeling able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions or concerns.”2
It is important to remember that having psychological safety in your team does not mean there aren’t tough conversations, that your ideas aren’t challenged. Edmondson is clear that in these environments, “people [don’t] always agree with one another for the sake of being nice.”3 She forwards that “psychological safety is about candor, about making it possible for productive disagreement and free exchange of ideas.”4
Google’s Project Aristotle revealed that the high performing teams they studied all had psychological safety as the common element in their teams. The two behaviors supporting psychological safety that these teams shared were “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking” and high “social sensitivity.” We relate these two behaviors to listening and empathy.
Consider creating opportunities for all voices to be heard in your huddles and meetings. This does not necessarily require a great deal of time. It can be as simple as taking an emotional/mental “pulse check” for everyone. If you do have time, consider offering a prompt, a question for the group. Set a timer (or use an old-fashioned sand-timer as we do in our group—it keeps time and acts as a “talking piece” to pass along) and ask everyone for their response. This not only helps everyone to feel heard, but it also gives leaders the opportunity to collect the wisdom of the group.
The Trifecta: Self-Regulation, Listening, and Empathy
After establishing psychological safety, at the foundation of effective conflict resolution efforts are 3 “superpowers.” This trifecta includes Self-Regulation, Listening, and Empathy.
Conflict is often perceived as a threat to the nervous system.5 And when our primitive neural systems perceive threat, protection responses may be triggered within the body that results in us taking actions and saying things that can fuel conflict or derail efforts to work through issues with others.
It’s therefore important to hone the ability to first regulate your biology so you can respond with actions and words that support conflict resolution efforts. Working with the nervous system to let it know “Hey, I’m safe” is your task. One “hack” for bringing the nervous system from a triggered state into a more favorable condition for problem solving is simple: Extend the exhale so it’s longer than the inhale. This is easily achieved by whispering the syllable “Ha” as you exhale.
There are many other tools and techniques for moving the nervous system into a “rest and digest” state where the part of the brain responsible for reasoned systematic thinking is brought back “online.” We recommend those activities that elicit the Relaxation Response.
One of the fundamental aspects of conflict resolution is active listening. This kind of listening (among other nuances), encompasses paying full attention to the speaker, seeking to understand their perspective, and responding empathetically.6
By actively listening, individuals can gain insights into the underlying concerns and emotions fueling the conflict. It involves holding the space for the speaker to share authentically and without interruption, maintaining cues of respectful attention, and demonstrating through a thoughtful response, that the listener has heard and fully understands the important concerns and emotions of the other.7
Active or Reflective listening demonstrates respect and promotes an environment where all parties feel heard and valued.
Chris Voss defines empathy as “the ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart, and the vocalization of that recognition.”8 Voss is careful to distinguish the skilled delivery of empathy from “being nice” or trying to appease the other person by agreeing with them.9 He forwards that empathy is about demonstrating you understand a person’s “emotional state” by communicating that understanding.10
Chris Voss’s technique excludes the word “I” because he says that it “gets people’s guard up.”11 The word “I” tends to insert yourself into the statement conveying that you are “more interested in yourself than the other person.”12
Try this language to begin your empathy statements:13
- It sounds like that must have felt…
- It seems like you might feel/think/want…
- It looks like what you experienced must have been…
- It must be (insert emotion) to go through that…
And make your focus the other person and their emotional experience.
It’s important to remember that we are not mind-readers and that we may not always be correct about how someone is feeling or how they are experiencing a situation. It is therefore important to draw upon our superpower of listening coupled with humility and curiosity.
You may name the incorrect emotion on the first try. That’s okay. This is where your humility and curiosity come in. You can ask “did I get that right?” Or “I didn’t quite get that right, did I?” And then ask to know more about what that person is experiencing.
Brené Brown says that “empathy fuels connection” and indeed helps us feel that we are not alone during our challenges. Brown cautions that sometimes we may try to make things better for the other person during that challenge, by using “at least” statements highlighting the “silver lining” of their current challenge.14 These kinds of statements will most likely have the effect of, in Brown’s words, “driving disconnection.”15
Statistics on Workplace Conflict
Statistics provide valuable insights into the prevalence and impact of workplace conflicts. Research indicates that managers at companies across the United States are spending over 4 hours each week managing conflict. This translates to a severe drop in productivity as hundreds of hours have to be spent each year just managing conflict in the workplace.
Moreover, studies reveal that 91% of employees experience some form of conflict in the workplace. Among them, 36% claim they often experience conflict. The causes of workplace conflicts vary, with 47% citing poor communication as the main source of conflict. An additional 42% claimed it was lack of clarity in their roles that led to the conflict, and 38% said heavy workloads caused the issues to arise.
Benefits of Resolving Conflicts in the Workplace
Resolving conflicts in the workplace yields numerous benefits for individuals, teams, and organizations as a whole. First, addressing conflicts promotes improved teamwork and collaboration. By openly discussing disagreements and finding common ground, individuals can enhance their understanding of one another, leading to better cooperation and synergy within teams. This, in turn, contributes to increased productivity and efficiency.
Moreover, conflict resolution fosters a more positive work atmosphere. When conflicts are resolved promptly and respectfully, employees feel valued and supported. This positive environment cultivates employee satisfaction, motivation, and overall well-being. A harmonious workplace also reduces stress levels and creates a conducive space for creativity and innovation to flourish.
Effective conflict resolution can also guide individuals and teams to minimize the time spent on problem management, allowing them to focus on core business operations. By resolving conflicts efficiently, organizations can allocate more resources and energy to achieving their strategic goals.
Resolving conflicts has broader organizational benefits as well. With proper conflict resolution training, businesses can avoid potential legal and financial consequences. Unresolved conflicts can lead to lawsuits, damaged business relationships, and tarnished reputations. Additionally, a positive work environment resulting from conflict resolution efforts can attract talented individuals to the organization. Prospective employees seek out workplaces where their opinions are valued and where conflicts are addressed constructively.
Conflict resolution reduces turnover rates and increases employee retention. When conflicts are resolved promptly and fairly, employees are more likely to stay with the organization. This stability leads to a stronger and more committed workforce. Additionally, a healthy work environment resulting from effective conflict resolution decreases absenteeism rates, as employees feel more motivated and engaged in their roles.
Conflict Resolution is a Skill
Conflict resolution is a vital skill that empowers individuals and organizations to navigate conflicts effectively. By cultivating psychological safety in your team and then building individual skills related to self-regulation, listening, and empathy, conflicts can be transformed into opportunities for growth and collaboration.
Resolving conflicts in the workplace brings various benefits, including improved teamwork, increased productivity, a positive work atmosphere, legal and financial risk mitigation, talent attraction, reduced turnover, and decreased absenteeism. By investing in conflict resolution efforts, organizations can create a harmonious and thriving workplace that values open communication, understanding, and mutual respect.
1 Amy C. Edmondson, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2019) 8.
2 Edmondson, The Fearless Organization, 8.
3 Ibid. 15.
4 Ibid, 16.
5 See generally, Tim Hicks, Embodied Conflict: The Neural Basis of Conflict and Communication, (New York and London: Routledge, 2018).
6 See generally, Chris Voss and Tahl Raz, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, (New York: Harper Business, 2016).
7 Voss and Raz, Never Split, 102.
8 Ibid, 51-52.
9 Ibid, 53.
11 Ibid, 56.