For many of us, every day is a struggle to avoid conflict. Yet avoidance is practically impossible since the core characteristics, ideas and beliefs of each individual often conflict with our own. Differences of opinion, competitive zeal, and misinterpretations, among other factors, can all generate ill feelings between co-workers within an organization. While we can’t avoid conflict, we can learn how to sidestep negative confrontations by becoming familiar with the types of conflicts that most commonly arise in the work place and by learning how to resolve them

As a manager, you should approach every conflict as an opportunity to improve employee relationships, to lessen tension in the workplace, and to eliminate long-standing problems. Learn to treat conflict as a natural dynamic in staff relationships: it often proves useful by forcing employees to solve problems. Problem-solving results in effective communication.

Causes of Conflict

Conflict occurs when two or more individuals (or groups) within an organization need to solve a problem together. The problem could be minor such as organizing a weekly cleanup crew for the coffee break area, or major such as training staff on new and complex corporate procedures. Whatever the scenario, any situation can turn sour. The parties’ interests may clash, one party’s actions may insult the other party, or both parties could just have incompatible personalities.

1. Conflicts of belief: People have different personal beliefs and any deviation from those beliefs is bound to cause problems. This type of conflict should not be allowed to erupt in an organization.

2. Conflicts of attitudes: People have different values, goals and lifestyles, which may offend or annoy others.

3. Conflicts resulting from inappropriate management behavior: Executives are not excluded from causing conflict. Many executives misuse their authority by insulting others. Managers who fail to support employees and follow through on promises and tasks encourage conflicts between individuals by not taking charge.

Conflict falls under two major headings: low cost conflict and high-cost conflict. Low cost conflict can be constructive. New ideas and improvements often arise out of low-cost conflict. For example, cleaning up the coffee area can easily be solved by organizing a schedule, which is a constructive solution.

Employees who are “set in their ways” may resent the new procedures because they have to re-learn part of their jobs over again from the beginning. Improper training can also push the situation into a high-cost conflict. Letting this type of conflict get out of hand could have a major impact on an organization. With the proper knowledge of how to handle conflicts, whether they are major or minor, you can stop a potentially devastating conflict dead in its tracks.

Identifying Conflict

There are generally three ways a manager is informed of conflict. The manager observes discontent brewing between two parties. If this is the case, document the incidents to use as evidence when confronting the involved parties. Do not use this as threatening material, only use it as reinforcement for yourself and so you will remember the particular situations that contributed to the conflict.

Another way the manager is alerted to conflict is when one or both of the conflicting parties approach the manager with complaints about the other. In this case, sit one or the both parties down to discuss the problem.

The third way a manager learns of conflict is when a third party points out the existing conflict between others. Before confronting the parties, observe them to make a personal assessment of the situation.

Watch for these common symptoms of conflict:

• The staff member (or members) involved display no desire to communicate.
• Bad tempers are evident.
Productivity is falling.
• Morale is slipping.
• One or more of those involved frequently calls in sick.
• Accidents and errors become more frequent.
• Disagreements become more pronounced (shouting, slamming doors, etc.)

Once you have identified a conflict, you must plan a course of action. Decide whether the conflict is important enough to confront the conflicting parties. Make careful assessments of both the conflict and the conflict’s impact on the individuals and the organization. The said conflict could just be an intense brainstorming session (which you should not short circuit).

If you deem confrontation is necessary, however, confront the parties separately. Confront them in a neutral setting for a down-to-earth chat. If the conflict is in its early stages, resolution might be easily—and quickly—achieved now.

During the confrontation, the cause of the conflict must be determined. After the confrontation, the manager should reflect on the discussion and reach an objective solution for both parties to agree upon. There will be times when the parties will not agree: in this case, use your own judgment.

Your primary objective is to find a solution. The manager dips into his resources and either reduces or eliminates the conflict. To accomplish this you must elicit enough information to understand each staff member’s opinion and to define the problem in mutual terms.

Once a solution is implemented, you must make regular checks on the parties to insure that their agreements are being kept. If the process is successful, both parties should be attempting to work the situation out. If not, confrontation must occur again to determine the remaining causes of the conflict.

There is a fine line between conflict and disagreement. Disagreement involves a difference of opinion, belief, or idea. All disagreements involve some kind of conflict, yet every disagreement need not reach full-scale pandemonium. If both parties are mature and self-confident, any problem that arises should be solvable between them. If not, conflict is bound to arise—often over petty situations.

Author's Bio: 

CEO of A.E. Schwartz & Associates of Boston, MA., a comprehensive organization which offers over forty management and professional development training programs with workbooks and practical solutions to organizational problems.

Mr. Schwartz conducts over one hundred programs annually for clients in industry, research, technology, government, Fortune 100/500 companies, and nonprofit organizations worldwide. He is an adjunct professor who has taught and lectured at over a dozen colleges and universities throughout the United States.

He is also a prolific author having published over 200 articles, dozens of books and hundreds of products. He is often found at conferences with his fast-paced, participatory, practical, succinct, and enjoyable style.

Andrew E. Schwartz