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Conflicts sometimes arise in working life. They are undesirable, but often unavoidable. Professional conflicts often lead to stress, and it can be hard to come to a meaningful compromise. People may say things they do not mean and small arguments can turn into big crises. Of course, the best thing for a peaceful work environment is if they don’t arise in the first place. However, since they cannot always be avoided, it is important to solve existing conflicts. Good conflict management helps to find solutions and deal with crises.
What is conflict management?
De-escalation is the main goal of conflict management. Disputes or even quiet, simmering disagreements must not simply be ignored. This is because they not only influence the company’s mood, but also its productivity – which is why rapid conflict resolution is the way to go. Conflict management offers methods that have proven their worth in various conflict situations to ensure that an honest, factual discussion does not turn into a concrete dispute. A solution cannot always be achieved by the warring parties by themselves, however. In these scenarios, a third person should act as a mediator who works towards resolving the conflict without escalation.
However, conflict management is not about winning an argument or ordering a proverbial ceasefire. Both would interrupt the conflict only briefly, but in the long run it would flare up again. Therefore, good conflict management works to ensure that both sides understand each other and make concessions. Conflict management is less about finding an actual solution to the immediate problem – rather, it offers strategies and methods that help the two parties to communicate productively with each other and thus find a solution to the problem.
There is a difference between conflict management and conflict resolution. This is because conflict management is only used in situations where something can be negotiated. The participants have different interests and there will have to be a negotiation to what extent certain interests are taken into account and others are abandoned. If, however, it is less a matter of interests than of basic needs, these cannot be negotiated, only mediated. This is where conflict resolution comes in. Since both are often connected, a clear demarcation is not always easy and usually one uses both methods in business settings.
Conflict resolution must be distinguished from conflict management and conflict transformation. Its aim is to find a solution as quickly as possible that prevents the conflict from escalating and allows work to continue seamlessly. However, the causes of the conflict are not investigated, since conflict resolution does not aim to address the root causes.
Types of conflict
If you want to use established strategies for conflict resolution, you should first understand what a conflict is – not every dispute is automatically a conflict. In particular, small disputes – usually about banal things (like the temperature in the office) – resolve themselves quickly. If both parties are well-intentioned towards each other, they usually reach an agreement after a short time. On the other hand, there are problems that are so profound that they do not simply work themselves out.
It is particularly hard to avoid conflict if different values, goals and ideologies collide. In addition, professional conflicts often mean that third parties must continue to work together despite the disagreement. Among colleagues, it is rarely possible to just avoid each other forever and avoid confrontation that way.
Not every conflict affects several parties. For example, an individual employee often has a problem with themselves, so this conflict is hidden. If, for example, difficult decisions must be made, employees can experience internal struggles. These difficulties in decision-making often result from the fact that both choices appear equally good or equally bad – or bring both advantages and disadvantages. Although this form of conflict rarely leads to disputes, it does create problems. If an employee is struggling and hesitates to make decisions, their work will suffer as a result. This harms not only them, but the entire company.
When people come together, minor or major conflicts often arise. Even if an employee does not start off with bad intentions, unexpected factors can come to light that escalate a situation which had previously been harmless. These communication conflicts are by no means rare. In order to manage the conflict, it is necessary to uncover communication errors.
The situation is different if there are no rationally comprehensible reasons for the conflict. Sometimes conflicts arise simply because different personalities collide and people can’t be together without problems arising. These relationship issues are human nature and are difficult to avoid. This makes it all the more important to work with meaningful conflict management steps when two different personalities clash.
If it’s not the personalities, then it could be the participant’s role that can cause a conflict. In a group of people, like a professional team, you automatically take on different roles – either planned or unplanned. From time to time you may be pushed into a role that you don’t like (example: based on operational experience, management may see someone in the role of a department manager in the future, however the employee themselves does not consider themselves to have leadership qualities). The employee sees themselves in a different role to that assigned to them – a person-role conflict occurs.
The situation is similar in a power conflict. This often arises when employees in similarly high positions have to work together. A conflict arises because one person believes that they should be higher up than another. However, the other person also sees themselves as superior. This creates a power struggle that neither want to relinquish.
There may also be rational reasons for conflict. Both in personal and professional lives, views can differ within a group. The problem is often caused by differing perspectives. A material conflict therefore occurs when, for example, one wants to pursue different solutions or goals.
A conflict of values, on the other hand, is about the attitudes and convictions of those involved. They can often result from questions like these: How should situations be handled? What are the appropriate measures to take? If different beliefs emerge when answering these questions, this can sometimes lead to conflicts – since nobody likes to compromise on their values. This makes reaching a solution difficult. Conflict management must intervene in this case so that the situation doesn’t escalate.
How to solve conflicts
First of all, watching and doing nothing is not a solution. Every employee (not just supervisors) should react if they notice tension between colleagues. If you can’t or don’t want to do something yourself, a responsible person should be informed. When there is a conflict, it can usually be seen from various angles:
- Avoidance: The two parties avoid each other and do not talk to each other.
- Body language: Mimics and gestures make it easy to read moods. If body language has a negative, defensive effect, there is probably a conflict which will be obvious when the quarrelling parties are forced together.
- Distance: Talks between the two potential conflicted parties are very distant and formal. Contact on a personal level is avoided.
- Ignorance: If a conflict exists, one side rarely takes the other side seriously. Therefore, the parties tend to disregard decisions of the other side.
- Aggression: The parties involved react irritably or aggressively to each other. Even small things can lead to escalation.
- Rumors: If conflicts have existed for a long time, it rarely only affects the people fighting. Rumors are likely to circulate around the office, possibly even stimulated by the disputants.
Latent conflicts like this tend to happen over time. To prevent this, you should intervene as soon as possible if you notice a conflict. Conflicts are easiest to manage when they are caught in the initial phase, making a satisfactory outcome for both sides more likely. The further a conflict progresses, the more difficult it becomes to reach an amicable solution. Most likely, at least one side will then disagree with the clarification. At the end of an escalation (a more or less open dispute) nobody can win, as both sides will have already suffered excessive losses.
A clarifying conflict discussion should turn the situation for the better at an early stage. Ideally, this discussion should take place with a third party: a superior, an official trusted third party individual or an external conflict moderator. Two models have proven their worth in these discussions: the KULT model and the Harvard concept. However, certain basic prerequisites apply to both:
- Objectivity: Emotions often cause a conflict to escalate. For this reason, the conversation should stick only to the facts. Personal attacks are completely inappropriate.
- Respect: Even if there is a dispute, individuals should treat each other with respect. This includes letting both parties speak freely.
- Willingness to compromise: Anyone who takes part in a conflict discussion without the will to approach the other person blocks possible solutions to the conflict. To resolve the conflict, individuals should look for similarities and build on them.
KULT stands for clarification, causes, solution, and transfer. These terms describe the individual phases to go through during a conflict resolution discussion according to this model.
- Clarification: Before you begin trying to solve a conflict, you first need to clarify what it actually consists of. If several points are part of a complicated network of conflicts, this step also determines what order they should be dealt in.
- Causes: The problem is then analyzed to identify the causes of conflict. This step may take some time and may require other people’s help. In this phase, the participants try to uncover the causes of conflict as objectively as possible.
- Solution: Once all the reasons have been brought together, a solution to the conflict is the focus. All parties agree on a concrete plan on how to resolve the conflict.
- Transfer: Finally, the plan is implemented. It is important to ensure that all parties actually work towards achieving the goals that have been set. During this phase, however, new conflicts can arise which may require you to start the process over. At the end of implementation phase, a reflective discussion with the participants should ensure that the same causes do not lead to the conflict arising again in the future.
The Harvard concept is based on a project at Harvard University and was published as a book by Roger Fisher and William L. Lury in 1981. The concept aims to find a solution with the best possible result for both sides. It is intended to make it easier for the conflicting parties to negotiate among themselves. A conflict moderator is not mandatory. Therefore, the model is very suitable for conflict resolution among colleagues, as well as conflicts outside the professional context.
The Harvard concept provides clear guidelines that must be adhered to:
- Always discuss on a factual level. The person behind the position is considered separate from the matter at hand. There should be space for emotions, but everyone pays attention to a strict separation of emotional and factual arguments.
- The parties should put interests in the foreground. For this, you must analyze the conflict and to break it down to the actual goals on both sides. It often becomes clear that both individuals are closer than they originally thought.
- Next, you should look for ideas about how to solve the conflict together. The participants should not limit themselves initially, but play through each idea mentally and also discuss it with one another.
- The best possible solution is then found on the basis of objective evaluation criteria. Both sides have agreed on these criteria in advance. In order to maintain a fair trial, the advantages and disadvantages of a solution should be discussed and no details concealed.
When finding a solution, you should bear in mind that despite the conflict, the relationship between two parties shouldn’t suffer much in the end. The aim of the Harvard concept is to achieve reconciliation at the interpersonal level as well. The best way to avoid a legal dispute is also the key to conflict resolution according to the Harvard concept. All options for conflict resolution must be on the table. This is why the generation phase is so important. If it is neglected, you can’t be certain whether there might not have been a better solution for those involved. The best option is the one that brings the greatest successes for both sides (creates a win-win situation).
However, you can’t always rely on both sides actually adhering to the Harvard concept in every conflict. If one or both parties feel they have to ignore the rules of the Harvard concept, certain methods can be used to achieve a successful conclusion. An essential feature of the concept is that no one should leave the objective debate and resort to insults. Additionally, neither side must exert pressure on the other to speed up conflict resolution. If a party does not abide by these rules, the Harvard concept provides for interruptions in negotiations: only when the uncooperative side shows itself willing to engage in a reasonable dispute will negotiations be resumed.
Often a person’s personality determines how constructively they react to confrontations. The ability to solve conflicts efficiently or to avoid them in advance is called the ability to deal with conflicts. Prerequisites for this are empathy and a feeling for moods and burgeoning problems, as well as a certain degree of self-confidence or self-reflection.
The Harvard concept provides that all information and details are known to both sides. If a site should try to reach a solution in its favor by deceit and you find out, you should make the negative behavior public. Their tactics will not work.
But what if one side makes demands that are simply unacceptable? In these situations, the Harvard concept allows these demands to be accepted as hypotheses rather than directly rejected. By addressing the consequences of these demands, you can explain why they are unacceptable. In case of doubt, however, the Harvard concept also provides for an external third party: a mediator or conflict moderator can help to ensure that the talks are conducted on an objective level.
Mediation & supervision
Especially when a conflict seems to be stuck, or escalates very quickly, help from outside can be useful – when communication between colleagues, even with the involvement of a supervisor, no longer works, for example. As independent third parties, mediators and supervisors often have a better chance of bringing the discussion back to a constructive level.
Mediation is an out-of-court conciliation procedure. This legal classification already makes it clear that this procedure is often used as the last option before a court dispute. In fact, mediation can also help in everyday disputes in the workplace and even in international political conflicts. The decisive factor for success is that quarrelling parties voluntarily decide to participate in mediation. The mediator acts in a moderating capacity. The aim, however, is for the parties themselves to find a solution to the conflict.
Supervision, on the other hand, usually does not take place in a concrete conflict. Instead, you generally work with one person or – even better – the whole team to improve the structure. First, you analyze patterns of behavior and identify the causes of possible conflicts. In this way, you can avoid them at an early stage, and strengthen cooperation and cohesion among colleagues in the long term.
Both performance reviews and employee motivation can help to weld the team together and create a constructive discussion culture. This often prevents conflicts from arising at all.
Results of conflict management
At the end of conflict management, peace should ideally be restored. However, it is not always possible to meet the expectations and wishes of both parties 100%. Four results are conceivable as the outcome of conflict management:
- Lose-lose: This result does not satisfy either side. Usually this kind of situation arises in everyday professional life when a superior ends a conflict by making a strict decision, ignoring the expectations of those involved.
- Win-lose: With this result, only one side benefits from conflict management. The other party is unhappy with the outcome, which creates potential for new conflicts.
- Win-win: The best result is the win-win situation. This kind of result makes it possible for both parties to leave the conflict satisfied. There is a solution that is satisfactory for all sides; no one is ignored.
- 50:50: Not an ideal, but a satisfactory result, is the equivalent compromise. Both sides have to give up parts of their wishes, but can also push through proposals in equal proportions.
In the best case scenario, a conflict can even be used as a starting point for a positive development. Since conflict management uncovers the causes of conflicts, it is possible to change business conditions in such a way that fewer conflicts arise from now on. In addition, those involved learn how to behave in conflict situations in order to avoid escalations. Often, conflicts can be resolved at an early stage.