HR expert shares 8-step approach to workplace conflict resolution

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March 20, 2024
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4 min read
Headshot of Elizabeth Okonji, Founder of TGL Labs

One of Gartner's top nine predictions for people managers and HR professionals in 2024 suggests that managers should prioritise developing conflict resolution skills because conflicts between employees are expected to be at an all-time high in 2024.

While conflicts are unavoidable, they can be prevented and effectively managed. However, when not properly handled, they can cost an organisation resources, both in finance and talent. Productivity is also impacted when work time is spent resolving conflicts.

Some of these conflicts end up becoming employment lawsuits leading to the company losing millions in damages or settlements. Increased stress levels, declining employee morale, poor work quality, and increased talent churn rate, are only a few outcomes when conflicts are allowed to fester.

In the US, for instance, a 2008 survey showed that managers spend at least one day a month on conflict resolution. Projecting this to almost two decades later when politics, DEI, work arrangement (RTO), generational representation, layoffs, and  Generative AI are touchy issues in the workplace, the frequency would have increased.

These 2023 stats show that globally, employees spend 2.1 hours weekly attending to disagreements. Let's consider what's responsible for these conflicts.

Conflict triggers 

Elizabeth Okonji, Founder, TGL Labs, suggests that workplace conflicts between employees occur due to the necessity of working together to achieve the company's goals. According to her, these conflicts can be categorised as follows:

Task conflict: This emerges from differences in viewpoints, opinions, and ideas regarding work. While diversity of thought is beneficial for organisations, a healthy balance is needed to ensure productive outcomes. For instance, debates during brainstorming sessions could be perceived or handled as personal attacks on intelligence rather than an avenue for fostering creativity and innovation, if not managed properly.

Process conflict: If task conflict arises from “what” to do, process conflict is from “how” to do it. When work is being delegated or performed, employees may perceive resources as unfairly distributed or feel that their contributions are not adequately recognised. If these perceptions are not addressed promptly, team morale can be negatively impacted.

Interpersonal conflict: In a previous interview, Chibuzo Ihentuge-Eric, Head, People & Culture at Bankly, highlighted the importance of considering cultural compatibility and individual values alignment with company's goals when hiring for a role. Interpersonal conflicts arise from differences in personality, beliefs, and values. Where compromises cannot be reached, overall team cohesion will suffer.

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Other triggers include: 

Contentious topics: Political and religious discussions typically stir up conflict in the workplace. While some leaders advocate that these topics should be avoided completely, others recommend maintaining a neutral stance while establishing clear policies on how to navigate such subjects, thereby fostering a supportive environment for all employees, regardless of their political and religious beliefs.

Performance reviews: Evaluating an employee's performance can sometimes spark conflict, especially when expectations are not clearly communicated or when there are discrepancies in the evaluation process. Addressing these issues transparently and providing constructive feedback can help mitigate conflicts during performance reviews.

DEI issues: Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues can also trigger conflicts when employees feel marginalised or discriminated against based on their race, gender, sexuality, or other identities. Inclusive policies, diversity training, and fostering a culture of respect and acceptance can help prevent such occurrences.

A WorkNest study surveying 350 UK employees in 2023 revealed that the majority of workplace conflicts happen between co-workers. Okonji shares similar sentiments, stating that this is expected, due to the frequency of direct engagement between co-workers.

However, conflicts also arise between employees and management. Interestingly, the disruption from these conflicts is often of a greater magnitude or effect.

"Conflicts between management and employees tend to have a greater impact because of the power distribution. They typically result from perceived injustices, lack of transparency, poor communication, and expectations mismatch. Unless intentionally addressed by management, their impact will be felt in the resultant culture climate and employee loyalty."

8-step approach to resolving conflicts in the workplace 

Preparation: Assess the situation to determine the appropriate mediation approach and your level of involvement. Sometimes, simply delegating and guiding the process is sufficient, rather than fully immersing yourself in it.

Information gathering: Conduct a thorough investigation to gather details about the conflict, including the parties involved, the context, and the underlying causes.

Establishing neutrality and trust: Clearly communicate and demonstrate the transparent nature of the mediation process. It's crucial for all parties to understand that the mediator has no personal biases or opinions regarding the case. Common laws guiding fair hearing mandate that none of the conflicting parties should be part of the decision-making panel.

Identifying underlying interests: It is the mediator's responsibility to dive deeper to uncover the true intentions of all parties involved. Understanding their underlying interests gives valuable context beyond words. This guides your approach to resolving the conflict.

Facilitating dialogue: In conflict resolution, it is important to create a safe space for open and honest communication tailored to the nature of the dispute and available resources. Establish ground rules to maintain order and promote productive discussions.

Encouraging problem-solving: Help the parties involved understand that a resolution requires them to have a solution-oriented mindset and emphasise that a resolution may require compromise or concessions from both sides. Besides, not all arbitrations end in a win-win scenario.

A mediator should avoid assigning blame or getting derailed by negative comments. Instead, they should focus on generating possible solutions. Take breaks as needed to prevent the process from derailing.

Reinforcing agreements: Once a resolution is reached, document the proceedings and outline specific actions and responsibilities for all parties, along with corresponding timelines. This promotes clarity, accountability, and prevents recurring misunderstandings.

Checking in: Follow up on the resolution to ensure accountability. Address any communication gaps and provide support to parties struggling to fulfil their obligations.

Additional recommendations 

For Okonji, successful mediation of conflict involves understanding human behaviour and organisational dynamics. Additionally, it requires the ability to organise people through a structured approach.

Since conflict resolution isn't an intuitive skill, managers can seek knowledge from professional training programmes, certification courses, workshops, and research.

Ultimately, the art of successful mediation is honed through practice. With consistency, professionals can recognise their biases and other tendencies that could affect their neutrality or fairness in the mediation process, and work on them afterwards.


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Human enthusiast | Writer | Senior reporter | Podcaster. Find me on Twitter @Nifemeah.
Human enthusiast | Writer | Senior reporter | Podcaster. Find me on Twitter @Nifemeah.
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Human enthusiast | Writer | Senior reporter | Podcaster. Find me on Twitter @Nifemeah.

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