How to Resolve Workplace Conflict with Conflict Resolution Strategies
Workplace conflict resolution can feel like lion taming, but without the benefit of tame lions. Half of HR workers report spending one to five hours a week on workplace conflict resolution, which demonstrates how persistent it is. Whether you’re an HR department of one or you manage a whole team, managers and employees turn to you when they need help mediating and resolving workplace conflicts. Much is at stake; employees may threaten to quit or even sue. You need to go in armed with effective conflict resolution strategies to de-escalate tension, get opposing sides to compromise, and remedy hurt feelings.
In this chapter of the HR 101 Guide, we’ll go over conflict management strategies so you can increase employee engagement and retention, eliminate distractions, and support a healthy work culture. Specifically, we’ll discuss how to create a clear strategy to prevent conflict and a plan for conflict resolution to empower you and your team to act decisively and consistently when situations arise. We’ll go over the steps to take when you do have to mediate a conflict between employees. We’ll discuss ways to build a clear culture of understanding, open communication, and collaboration. Lastly, we’ll address training managers and employees on these same skills to improve their conflict resolution skills.
Developing these conflict resolution skills will go a long way towards making everyone feel safe and cared for at your organization. When conflicts arise, as they inevitably do, you want people to trust they will be heard and that someone’s on top of the issue.
Example of a Workplace Conflict: Round Robin Gone Wrong
James is the newest addition to a small sales team. His experience at the company has been in customer service, but he’s impressed management with his ability to interact with customers. His excitement over his new position and his drive to prove himself by shooting over and above his quota leads him to make a few missteps with his new team.
While accounts are usually assigned through a round robin, there’s an unspoken rule on the team about new accounts from specific industries going to certain sales reps. James, however, understands this to be more of a suggestion than a rule and doesn’t hand over some leads to the appropriate teammate. As a result, the other team members start hoarding leads and cutting James out of the loop because they feel he’s gone rogue.
Bitterness and resentment build on all sides until three of the sales people complain to the sales manager about what they see as James’s “lone wolf” behavior. When confronted with their complaints, James feels ambushed and maligned. He tells the manager that he was only trying to do his best. The strife has everyone feeling unwelcome and anxious. The manager doesn’t think she’ll seem very objective since she’s personally friends with some of the sales people and appeals to the business’s HR representative to find a solution to this conflict.
Faced with this issue or one similar to it, HR should ask themselves a few questions:
- What is HR’s role in facilitating healthy, effective conversations? How can HR support an effective resolution together with the employees and managers involved?
- What is the root of this conflict? Is an individual’s behavior at issue or are there problems on both sides that need to be addressed?
- Are there any policies or laws that are relevant to the situation or need to be addressed?
- What would be an appropriate response or conflict resolution strategy?
- What can HR or management do to prevent this kind of conflict from arising in the first place?
- How can employees contribute to a more positive workplace? What aspects of company culture need to be addressed?
We’ll come back to this example and a possible solution as we answer these questions and discuss conflict resolution strategies to give you a solid understanding of how to handle similar situations.
Keep reading to learn how to best tackle workplace conflicts.
When Should HR Get Involved?
First, it’s important to understand the difference between conflict and disagreement. Though disagreements are sure to crop up in any business that has more than a single employee, these don’t normally require intervention because they’re a sign of collaboration and communication. People are still talking and willing to work together in a disagreement.
But when disputes go beyond professional opinions and involve personal attacks, rudeness, or resentment (whether vented openly or passive aggressively)—these step over the line of acceptable disagreements into unacceptable workplace conflicts. Conflict disrupts work and makes collaboration impossible. And a conflict doesn’t have to be an all-out screaming match, either. Avoidance or silence, which lead to frustration and resentment, can also be a sign that there’s something wrong and that it’s time to step in with conflict management strategies.
Companies with more diversity have higher revenue, mixed-gender executive boards generate higher profits, and diverse teams make better decisions by focusing more on facts and pushing each other to innovate. So don’t silence dissenting voices just because they seem like a precursor to conflict.
While disagreements sometimes involve intense and passionate discussion, they can spark creativity and problem solving by presenting different, viable possibilities and solutions. This diversity of perspectives leads to careful consideration of issues and thoughtful solutions with tangible financial benefits. Companies with more diversity have higher revenue, mixed-gender executive boards generate higher profits, and diverse teams make better decisions by focusing more on facts and pushing each other to innovate. So don’t silence dissenting voices just because they seem like a precursor to conflict.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself to determine whether you’re dealing with a conflict or just a disagreement:
- What effect is the situation having on the parties involved? Is it negatively affecting their mood or performance in this or other aspects of their job? Or do they still show respect for each other?
- Is the discord between parties causing stress or negatively affecting other employees’ morale? Or do teammates and subordinates feel encouraged to speak out and challenge the status quo?
- Are there personal issues coloring the argument? Or are the parties involved simply differing in their professional opinions?
It should be clear now that, in our round robin example, the problems between James and the rest of the team really are a workplace conflict and not just a disagreement. It has gone beyond just a difference of opinions and has affected the way the team operates and feels about their jobs.
Conflict resolution is a difficult part of an HR representative’s job because it can be difficult to gauge if an argument will remain on a professional level or if it will escalate. A roomful of people can fervently debate an issue and walk out feeling like they’ve collaborated to accomplish a difficult but rewarding task. One ill-received or ill-conceived comment, however, can turn a single bad interaction into a venomous working relationship. While you certainly don’t want to penalize anyone for simply speaking their mind, setting clear boundaries for what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace is an important step in implementing conflict resolution strategies.
What Is HR’s Role in Workplace Conflict Resolution?
Consider Conflict Management with a Wide Lens
It’s important for HR to take a broad and systemic view of conflict management—if you limit it to mediating between employees, you’ll miss a lot of opportunities to help employees and your organization. What you say and do as an organization and HR team affects how employees perceive each other, the organization, and their role in it, which in turn either limits or makes it easier for conflict to arise.
In short, you need to be broadly strategic and build conflict management into your organization’s policies and processes.
The following questions will help you take a comprehensive view of conflict resolution, starting broadly and drilling down:
- What are your guiding principles as an HR team and as an organization? While not every company has overt values on communication or team work, you’ll likely have standards surrounding these principles; these make up the basic foundation for the kind of workplace you create and the systems you put in place.
- How do you go about making decisions? The way you take action and communicate with employees will have a compounding effect on their perception of the workplace and their reaction to your decisions.
- How are you administering your policies across the board? HR’s role is to ensure equitable treatment across all policies.
- Do employees understand the reason why policies exist? Again, clear and honest communication is key. Confusion and misunderstanding can quickly sour and turn into conflict.
- How often do you and other departments reevaluate and change processes? Processes maintain consistency, but they also break over time, so your organization needs to stay agile and flexible to adapt to new and emerging needs.
- When processes or communication break down, how often does this happen, and what has previously been the response? HR should get involved less to address specific pain points but to look at causes systemically and to ensure equitable, sustainable answers in every situation.
- Where and how is conflict measured in performance? Measuring and accounting for the effects of workplace conflicts on employees’ work will help you find trends and root out possible causes; this also shows employees that your organization takes workplace conflict and conflict resolution seriously.
- What is the verbiage or shorthand in your organization for effective or ineffective communication? This can help employees to more easily signal when a situation has deteriorated, both with each other and with HR.
It might feel overwhelming to think about conflict resolution in every facet of your organization, but that’s also the good news—you can affect change in all areas and thoughtfully build a workplace that incorporates healthy, positive communication (more specifics on that later in this chapter) and workplace relationships at every level.
Let Managers Do Their Jobs—Unless They’re Involved
The good news is that, as we already discussed, you don’t have to be the argument police because not every argument is necessarily unproductive and unprofessional. And with a clear employee manual and code of conduct, you can also rely on your organization’s managers to contribute to workplace conflict resolution by monitoring employee behavior and promoting healthy interactions. To make sure managers have adequate conflict resolution skills, you may need to train them, which we will cover in more detail later in this chapter.
However, if the incident is between a manager and a direct report, then you may have to step in as a neutral party because a manager isn’t always right. There’s an inherent imbalance of power, too, that makes conflict resolution trickier between a manager and an employee. A manager often determines employee tasks, where and when they work, how much they’re compensated, etc. When there’s a conflict, it’s easy for managers to retaliate against an employee or for a manager’s actions to be perceived by the employee as retaliatory.
For example, instead of dealing directly with a disruptive employee, a manager might assign them to work a later shift or work in a part of the warehouse that is out of sight and out of mind. But avoidance isn’t going to solve the problem, so it’s up to HR to mediate the conflict.
Never Wait to Intervene or Investigate Serious Violations
Some conflicts call for more drastic conflict management strategies. If the incident is particularly egregious, like a threat of violence, allegation of sexual harassment, bullying, etc., you need to step in to protect employees and put an immediate stop to the behavior. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) also recommends that HR step in when employees threaten to quit over an incident, disagreements become personal, or conflicts affect morale and business performance.
When There’s a Conflict of Interest, Get a Neutral Third Party Involved
HR helps keep the conflict resolution process fair, so it’s important to remain neutral. As HR expert Suzanne Collins explains, “it doesn't matter that HR is never the final decision maker when it comes to hiring, firing, promotions, etc. You cannot be a true business partner if you cannot give untainted advice.”
Whether employees come to HR for help with a conflict, consider how it looks from their perspective. In our hypothetical example, James’s manager may not be directly involved in the conflict, but there’s a perceived bias there because of her friendship with the other sales team members. While she’s not in HR, if she mediated the conflict, her final decision would be tainted by her perceived bias, whether it truly exists or not.
“No matter how fair you are, and no matter how well you’ve documented the reason for your decisions, if you’re friends (or worse, romantically involved) with an employee, every decision around that employee will be tainted.”
—Suzanne Collins, the Evil HR Lady
As Collins points out, it’s important to avoid even the perception of impropriety and get someone else involved. In most workplace conflicts, this will just mean getting HR involved, but if an HR representative is too close to the situation, then you will need to assign the case to someone else on the HR team or hire a contractor, depending on the situation. If you don’t get someone neutral, any attempt at conflict resolution is essentially moot. “No matter how fair you are, and no matter how well you've documented the reason for your decisions,” Collins admonishes, “if you're friends (or worse, romantically involved) with an employee, every decision around that employee will be tainted.”
This might feel especially punishing to small businesses where closeness just comes with the territory. But remind yourself that getting help doesn’t mean that your competence is in question. In fact, it shows your dedication to fairness and your integrity.
Come Up with a Code of Conduct
As we discussed above, there is no be-all-end-all in conflict resolution—likewise, a handbook isn’t going to be the magic bullet. You need to have other, more proactive tools and systems in place. But a handbook communicates your guiding principles and values, making it a part of your conflict management strategy, and by including a code of conduct in the handbook, you’ll let your employees know the basic expectations for behavior in the workplace.
HR should work closely with leadership, managers, and even employees, depending on the size and complexity of your organization, to create a comprehensive employee handbook or manual. The added bonus is that it will help employees onboard more quickly by giving them a guide to how your company does things.
Here are a few examples of what you might include in your handbook’s code of conduct:
- Communication policies: Let your employees know how you want them to communicate with each other, with HR, with customers, and on specific channels, like social media and email. Whether you have an informal work environment or strict policies, put everyone on the same page about civility, tone, and respect.
- Anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies: Don’t assume that your employees know what these mean, even if they’ve been employed for a long time. You’ll need to be especially clear about consequences and communication protocols for these policies. Employees should know who to talk to if they have to report a problem, how it will be handled, and that they will be protected from retaliation.
- Rules for appropriate use of office space: Avoid petty squabbles over who stole the stapler or who ate who’s leftover sandwich by giving employees clear rules. If your organization shares spaces, like a kitchen, make sure everyone knows who is responsible for cleaning it (employees or outside staff), if they need to label containers, etc.
- Dress code: If regulations require protective gear, that’s definitely something you need to include so employees can feel safe performing their duties. But if it’s a matter of choice, then think of it as another way to reinforce your culture. Whether that’s formal uniforms or casual t-shirts and jeans will depend on your organization. It’s also important to clarify dress code expectations for remote workers so they’re prepared to meet with cameras on.
Why Do Conflicts Happen?
We’d all like to think that we’re easy to get along with. But people are people, which means that we’re complex creatures with various types of stress and worry. Personal health, finances, family, schooling, housing, the state of the world—we carry it all and more with us when we clock in. And then there’s the unique mix of stressors and constraints of the workplace that adds to the equation. In other words, conflicts come about for many reasons, some outside of HR’s control.
It can be tempting to resort to surface explanations for conflicts. It’s much easier to say “I just have a hard time working with this person” than to tackle the sensitive issues that may be causing the conflict. A Harvard Business Review article on conflict explains that “people’s interests may truly be opposed; roles and levels of authority may not be correctly defined or delineated; there may be real incentives to compete rather than to collaborate; and there may be little to no accountability or transparency about what people do or say.” In other words, meaningful conflict resolution has to address these complex problems.
That’s not to say that employees who tell you that their personalities “just don’t click” are trying to obfuscate the real reason for their conflict. As HBR mentions, it’s more about taking cognitive shortcuts: “It’s much easier for them to imagine that they’ll work better together if they simply understand each other’s personality...than it is to realize that they would have to come together to, for example, request that their boss stop pitting them against one another, or to request that HR match rhetoric about collaboration with real incentives to work together.”
Other reasons for conflict could include:
- Priorites (e.g., marketing thinks of customers as a group while sales thinks of the individual)
- Competition for budget or resources
- Varying levels of experience (whether job- or age-related)
- Personal beliefs (religious, political, etc.)
- Interpretation of company communications and policies (or lack thereof)
- Assumptions about intent, behavior, etc.
In our example, there’s a clear lack of communication about what the rules are for the sales team, which makes it harder for someone new to understand when they’re breaking those rules. If the team had simply made the rule official and part of James’s onboarding with the team, then it’s less likely that he would have overstepped the mark quite so dramatically. In addition, his teammates would have been able to point him to the rule, giving him the opportunity to change his behavior rather than making him feel attacked.
You can’t read minds, but part of HR’s job in resolving conflict is to untangle what employees say from what they might be experiencing. As a result, your conflict resolution strategies should include a thorough review of employees’ unique perspectives along with a large dose of empathy.
What Are the Steps in Conflict Resolution?
1. Step In Early
There’s no reason to wait to intervene in a conflict even if it’s not a serious violation. According to SHRM, “increased productivity and engagement are correlated with the shortness of time between identifying a problem and discussing it.” Whether it’s an employee coming to you or something you notice, stepping in before it becomes a more serious problem improves the working environment for those involved. You’re also reducing stress for other employees who often feel the ripple effect of negativity, even if they’re not the central actors in a conflict.
Whether it’s an employee coming to you or something you notice, stepping in before it becomes a more serious problem improves the working environment for everyone involved.
Additionally, if you’re dealing with an openly aggressive employee, the situation might call for sending that employee home for the day before trying to attempt any sort of resolution. It’s important to immediately defuse the situation and protect the ones on the receiving end of the aggression. First put an end to the outburst, and then deal with why it happened.
2. Meet with Everyone Involved
A key step in conflict resolution is to understand the situation by conducting a proper investigation, HR needs to interview those directly involved and possible witnesses. Depending on the situation, you may need to first meet with each individual separately before meeting together for mediation. Or you may decide that it’s best not to have the different parties in the conflict meet together at all. In the case of more serious allegations, like physical or sexual harassment, your priority should be protecting employees and maintaining confidentiality, which makes it improper to meet together with all involved parties.
3. Set Ground Rules for the Meeting
Whether mediating between employees or meeting with individuals, frame conflict resolution meetings with a few specific rules to help employees feel safe expressing their grievances. These rules also serve to remind them of your role as mediator (rather than a judge).
Here are the suggested rules:
- Have individuals use “I” statements when speaking. When meeting together, this helps them feel more empowered without putting the other person in a defensive position. E.g., “I feel…” or “My concern is…” rather than “You (or they) make me feel…” When meeting individually, it helps them get at the root of their emotions.
- Have each participant take notes while the other employee is taking their turn speaking. This helps the other participants listen more actively rather than interrupt and justify each complaint.
- SHRM also suggests that the person taking notes should then restate what the other person has said, which helps build empathy and validate the other person’s concerns.
4. Brainstorm Together to Find a Solution
Summarize your understanding of the issue back to the employees to establish the common ground you’ll all be working from to find a solution. Have the employees drive the conversation for how to fix the conflict. They’re more likely to stick to the plan if they come up with it. HR should ensure that employees suggest positive (rather than punitive) actions and that all parties agree on the proposed plan of action.
Coming back to our example, one possible solution to that conflict would be to come to a new compromise about the rules for lead distribution for the team, putting everyone back on the same page and eliminating the hidden or exclusive aspects of the team’s culture. The team could then post the new rules somewhere that’s easily visible to all in the office space to make the new team equality even more tangible.
5. Meet Again, If Needed
Conflict resolution is not going to be a one-and-done process. You may need to meet a few times if a single meeting isn’t enough for each person to have had their say, if you need more time to get to the root of an issue, or if you need leadership to approve a certain plan of action.
6. Check In to Monitor Progress
Make sure the action plan involves some kind of mechanism for HR to stay up to date. These mechanisms can include employees submitting reports, HR holding check-in meetings with managers to review day-to-day improvements in employee interactions, and other ways to measure and encourage progress.
For example, when generational stereotyping drove a wedge between two lab workers from different generations at a clinical research company, HR suggested setting up a checklist to provide clarity on each coworker’s contributions and accomplishments. The checklist worked so well in helping each of these two employees recognize the positive contributions the other made that the company replicated the process for their other employees.
7. Escalate Response If No Progress Is Made
If any of the employees renege on their agreement and fail to change their behavior, you will have to decide on the next steps. This will depend on the severity of the conflict, of course, and what’s feasible in your organization. If you have more than one location or different teams, you might offer employees the opportunity to transfer if they aren’t able to resolve their differences. If employees aren’t improving their behavior despite your best efforts, outside help, mediation, and action plans, then you might need to consider termination.
How Can You Build a Conflict-Free Workplace?
As we said in the introduction to this chapter, it’s hard to completely prevent conflict in the workplace, but you can create an atmosphere that minimizes conflict by encouraging openness, tact, and trust in coworkers’ good intentions. You can also train your employees to have better conflict resolution skills so your entire organization feels empowered to build a positive working culture.
Build a Culture of Open Communication
One way to keep problems from escalating past the point of no return is to build a resilient culture that everyone—from leadership to brand new hires—contributes to. Thankfully, HR doesn’t have to own culture as yet another responsibility on your ever-growing list. But you can be a strong driver for your ideal culture and a cheerleader for the managers and employees doing their best to put it into practice.
Here are some suggestions for starting a culture of openness at your workplace:
- Get honest feedback from your employees about how your organization is doing, how they feel at work, and how their managers are doing—and take that feedback seriously.
- Have leadership and management communicate openly, too, about how the company is doing, plans for the future, or other initiatives, positive or negative, that will affect employees.
- Evaluate your performance review process, and make sure that performance reviews are frequent enough to tackle problems as they arise and that reviews focus on building employee strengths.
- Discuss the onboarding process with leadership and managers to decide how to best communicate your value of transparency and train them to screen for communication skills during interviews with candidates.
- Incorporate training for your values and culture during onboarding.
Train Managers and Employees On Conflict Resolution Skills
HR shouldn’t have to shoulder the load all by themselves. Everyone should work together to build a workplace that is free from the stress of conflict. To achieve this, train your managers and employees on how to address stress and conflict appropriately within the workplace. While this may take various forms and will depend on the specific challenges your employees need the most help with, here are some techniques to try.
Communication training can be an effective tool for teaching new skills and help set the right tone for what is and isn’t appropriate in your organization. When deciding how to go about tailoring the training, consider the following questions:
- Company values: What does your organization value or prioritize when it comes to communication between employees? Tying your efforts to company mission or values will help you decide where to focus your training efforts and will also strengthen your organization’s culture.
- Specific outcome: What specific skill or set of skills would be most helpful for your employees? Focus on what’s most relevant rather than diluting the training with too much information.
For example at BambooHR, part of teaching conflict resolution skills happens during onboarding. We teach a communication class that focuses on one of our company values, Be Open, which helps familiarize new hires with our communication standards and culture. This value is all about giving and receiving honest feedback at every level to further new opportunities and solve problems, so we go over how to have difficult conversations that are productive without being confrontational. We also provide each new hire with a copy of the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, which reinforces these skills.
Mindfulness is all about being present in the moment rather than letting our thoughts and emotions hijack our attention and feelings. In a research review, psychologists found that mindful employees “may be more creative, have greater insights, and hold more information in their mind at one time. Rather than being emotionally reactive, they tend to have negative feelings less regularly, and these dissipate more rapidly.” Mindfulness resolves many sources of worker conflict, helping replace stressed co-workers with engaged employees, emotional reactions with empathy, and fear or poor performance with trust in leadership’s support.
And a little mindfulness goes a long way—researchers focusing on team mindfulness have found that “even if only the team leader or a handful of team members are mindful, it is possible the team as a whole will also be more mindful.” Their advice for achieving team mindfulness is in line with what we’ve covered in this section and the rest of the chapter:
- Encourage openness.
- Focus on what’s going on in the moment.
- Communicate respectfully.
- Take time to understand what’s going on before jumping to conclusions.
Doing this “helps reduce emotional or reflexive responses, leaving room for teams with diverse knowledge and different functional backgrounds to reach a greater potential.”
Conflict resolution isn’t the most glamorous part of HR, but it’s imperative to have conflict resolution strategies in place because no one is perfect, and employees should feel safe to bring up problems.
To build a workplace that resolves conflict, HR needs to:
- Think of conflict management as a broad strategy that should included in all policies and processes
- Step in to resolve conflicts as soon as possible
- When conflicts do flare up, help mediate between employees so they can come to a compromise and work towards improving their relationship
- Provide training on how to communicate respectfully and how to build a positive work culture for both employees and managers
Here are some additional resources to deepen your understanding of communication best practices and sharpen your conflict resolution skills:
- Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan
- Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships by Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD
- Radical Candor by Kim Scott