Resolve Conflict With Ease

Dec. 1, 2014
A simple step-by-step approach to resolving conflict among staff members that can result in constructive solutions that benefit everyone involved.

Conflict can be a scary word to business owners, says Jay Gubrud. Disagreements inevitably happen in any business, and it can be difficult to know how to properly address the conflict without avoiding it or blowing up—especially when dealing with conflict between employees.

“If you’re not talking about those issues, they can get murky and cause a lot of tension and inefficiencies,” says Gubrud, a consultant and professional speaker who specializes in conflict resolution.

But, Gubrud says, conflict can also have positive effects.

“Conflict can help define boundaries, scope and roles,” he says. “When you have conflict, you’re either going to get closer or define the roles you’re going to play.”

That is, if it’s handled correctly.

Byron Sabol, president of Sabol International Inc. and author of “Taming the Beast: Success with Difficult People,” says that constructive conflict can lead to creativity and innovation. The trick, however, is understanding the difference between constructive and unconstructive conflict. 

“Constructive conflict is the practice of allowing lively debate or discussions,” he says. “When employees feel like they have the power to debate and resolve issues in a respectful manner, then the results are often better than they would have been if the conflict wasn’t there in the first place.”

Sabol and Gubrud outline a simple step-by-step approach to resolving conflict among staff members that can result in constructive solutions that benefit everyone involved.

1.) Maintain an Open-Door Policy. The first step to facing conflict head-on is to make employees feel they have the opportunity to come to you with any issues they may have. An open-door policy can often avoid conflicts before they have the chance to escalate. 

Sabol also says that most disagreements should be addressed within 24 hours to prevent tensions from growing or affecting productivity.

“Conflict rarely resolves itself,” says Sabol. “In fact, conflict normally escalates if people don’t deal with it.” 

Sabol says that under no circumstances should owners avoid the conflict. Even if it seems trivial, he says the conflict can continue to fester and ultimately become a difficult problem.

“The downside of a conflict not being resolved is that people become frustrated, the conflict will continue to escalate, and good people will leave the work environment,” he says. “You will lose good employees out of frustration.”

2.) Don’t get emotional. Often times, those who are the source of the conflict may be emotional while talking through the issue. As a leader, remain calm and keep everyone focused on the problem at hand.

“One of the reasons people become emotional is that we’re under a lot of stress to do more with less time,” Sabol says. “The manager needs to keep everyone focused on resolving the problem and not get sidelined with personal and political issues.”

If the conversation seems to be devolving into an argument, Sabol recommends taking a break and revisiting the conversation in a couple hours or the next day.

3.) Listen to Both Sides. One of the keys to properly managing conflict is to listen without getting emotionally involved.

“Be a fly on the wall but be there to listen and judge without commenting,” Sabol says. “Assess the attitudes of the employees and what the conflict truly is.”

Sabol says to first let employees tell their story and get anything off their chest that they need to. In the heat of the moment, employees may need to vent, after which Sabol says you can start to dig into the true cause of the conflict. 

During the conversation, acknowledge both employee’s perspectives.

“Instead of defending your own position, seek to understand where they are coming from,” says Gubrud.

4.) Find the root cause of the problem. While listening to both sides, try to find the true cause of the problem and what the employee is hoping to achieve by addressing it.

“If you want to resolve issues among people, you have to understand what’s motivating them,” he says. “It’s essential to understand the other person’s motivation before you come up with any kind of solution. If you approach conflict with the perspective of taking the action that will help others achieve their goals, you will find fewer obstacles.”

5.) Be Direct. Once you’ve identified the root cause of the problem, be direct and state the problem and why it is not acceptable.

Sabol says that conflicts often happen because of misunderstood expectations or assumptions, so it is especially important for the manager to speak frankly and make sure that employees understand there are consequences for uncooperative people. 

While Sabol says it is important to be direct, it is also important to offer reassurance to employees that they are valued and appreciated. Gubrud recommends using the “sandwich technique” of preceding and following negative feedback with a positive comment.

“We all bring a certain amount of issues to the workplace. Sometimes employees are vocal with those issues and sometimes they’re not,” he says. “Part of being able to enable conflict resolution is sitting back, absorbing and being able to consider the full picture of seeing people as human beings with real lives and real problems.”

6.) Implement Steps to Move Forward. “When you are involved in the conflict process, there has to be a next step,” says Sabol. “It should be done in a positive manner and complementing the people on their commitment to take the steps needed.” 

The goal is to move on, not to harbor hurt feelings and continue to dwell on the issue. To properly move forward and leave the conflict behind, define what is expected next out of individuals. Establish what led to the problem and discuss how it could be prevented from happening again in the future. 

Gubrud warns against over-promising during this conversation.

“Don’t promise what you can’t deliver on,” he says. “That holds your credibility. You want your credibility to be high because then they take you seriously and will respect you.”

Sabol also recommends putting a timeframe on it and checking in periodically to get an update on the process made. This could be a brief check-in meeting once a week for a few weeks or an issue brought up during yearly reviews.

Gubrud also recommends being open to things changing in the future: “Don’t be afraid to revisit the problem and discuss new ways of handling it,” he says.

7.) Document the Conflict. Both Gubrud and Sabol urge owners to document any conflict and keep a note in the employee’s file. At the end of the conflict resolution, summarize the issue, collect signatures from the employees involved and give a copy of the documentation to employees.

The reason for documenting is two-fold: It helps create effective communication and will provide a legal document should you need to let an employee go or should a disgruntled employee try to file a lawsuit.

“You want to protect your shop. The employee might not think they have been treated fairly and could file a lawsuit,” Sabol says. “It’s also important for them to understand so there’s no breakdown in communication.”

Gubrud says to consider the severity of the conflict and to follow the progression of a verbal warning, written warning, suspension/final warning, and then termination. That being said, it never hurts to document even an easily resolved conflict. 

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