According to a recent study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, HR professionals spend anywhere from 24% to 60% of their time dealing with workplace conflict. This is a striking statistic, but it’s not altogether surprising: employees are people as well as workers, each with their own distinctive personality and values, and when they work together in close proximity, some level of disagreement is almost unavoidable.
But although conflict may be an inevitable part of the workplace, it doesn’t have to negatively affect an organization. The key for HR managers lies in learning to quickly identify and properly handle developing conflicts. When people effectively manage conflict, it can actually be a useful tool, helping to foster improved working relationships, innovative learning opportunities, and a more resilient company.
Here are seven helpful steps that you can take to transform workplace conflict from problematic to positive:
Identify the problem.
One of the biggest challenges in dealing with workplace disputes is that everyone doesn’t always agree on what the issue actually is. You can help identify the core of the problem by fully investigating both, or all, sides of the dispute and getting as thorough an understanding of the situation as possible before attempting to launch a resolution process. Clearly establishing the nature of the disagreement will also help keep future discussions on track and stop them from straying off on potentially destructive tangents.
Assemble all parties involved.
Once you have identified the problem, the next step is to gather together everyone involved. It’s very important to get everyone in the same room; avoid meeting with people individually, as this can lead to an atmosphere of mistrust and might encourage too much “speaking without thinking” from the different parties involved.
Set rules and expectations.
When all parties are present, it’s useful to formally state the rules and expectations of the meeting: structure is very helpful in resolving conflict because it provides a framework that everyone can follow without giving in to emotion. Generally, the basic rule is to ensure that each person has an equal amount of time to speak without interruption and to present their perspective and opinion.
You should be sure to let all employees involved know that you are committed to finding an acceptable resolution and are not here to take sides. A helpful way to ensure that everyone rises to the occasion is to express confidence in the participants’ abilities to discuss and resolve the conflict like responsible adults.
Active listening, where one person restates in his or her own words what another person has said, is a key conflict resolution skill that is an essential part of an effective HR manager’s toolkit. It shows understanding and concern for other points of view, and helps to promote better communication and defuse emotional situations.
As an HR professional, you should encourage all participants to practice active listening throughout the discussion. In fact, you can lead the way by demonstrating how to respond properly to what others say. You should begin by naming the feeling expressed, and then state the reason for that feeling, as in “It sounds like you’re frustrated by his lack of punctuality.”
Use conflict de-escalation strategies.
If the discussion gets heated, it may be necessary to calm the situation and keep tensions in check with conflict de-escalation techniques. You should take the lead by demonstrating and reminding participants of appropriate behaviors, such as using “I” statements rather than “you” statements. (“I feel like you are often late” rather than “You are always late.”) Other strategies include focusing on work behavior and not on individual personalities, not allowing put-downs or name-calling, sticking to the facts and avoiding sweeping generalizations, speaking in a civil tone, and maintaining neutral body language, with no crossed arms, clenched fists, or eye rolling. If necessary, take a time-out to allow everyone to cool down.
After discussing the problem, the next step is to get everyone committed to making the necessary changes to resolve the conflict. You should ask each person involved to describe what specific actions he or she feel the other party should take, and to verbalize in detail what the other person could do more or less of, in terms of his or her behavior.
Use this information to develop a realistic action plan to allow each person to achieve their goals. If there is a point that everyone agrees on and can compromise on, use that as a starting point; if you can’t find any area of agreement, focus instead on a common long-term goal. Finally, ensure that the meeting ends with each participant knowing what concrete steps he or she must take to resolve the conflict.
The end of the conflict resolution meeting is not the end of the process. Once the involved employees make commitments, you should set times in the future to hold progress reviews. This will help hold participants accountable for the actions they agreed to take.