Conflict can arise in the workplace for a number of reasons. Knowing this, it’s critical to have robust conflict management procedures and systems in place so that issues can be resolved effectively, minimising the negative consequences to your team. While some workplace disputes are unavoidable, they do not (and should not) need to have lasting effects on your organisation.

Successful conflict resolution means addressing and understanding workplace disputes holistically. Appreciate that prevention is ideal, but that inevitably there’ll be times when, as a manager, you’ll have to step in and resolve conflict. When this happens, it’s important to know how disputes evolve and how they can be settled effectively.

The state of workplace conflict

It’s important that staff know their rights, and the processes in place to manage conflict at your organisation.

Workplace disputes can occur between employees of all levels and over a range of issues. These might include:

  • Inconsistent treatment of employees
  • Arguments with managers or with colleagues
  • Workplace rights not being upheld or fully implemented
  • Issues around remuneration and promotion
  • The absence of proper conflict management process
  • Cultural or political differences
  • The lack of consultation over procedural or structural change

Stages of conflict management

As a manager, it’s possible to develop strong strategy, problem-solving skills and direction so that conflicts can be effectively settled. Additionally, employees can feel satisfied they participated in a professional, respectful and timely resolution process. Get to know the stages of conflict management so you’re adequately prepared:

Before the workplace dispute

Being able to pre-empt conflict is an important part of any conflict management strategy. However, it starts with education, and you can make sure staff understand your processes by seizing the following opportunities and strategies:

  • Staff inductions

All staff inductions should comprise a thorough summary of organisational protocols, emphasising how important they are, and how seriously you take them.

  • All staff gatherings

Use all-staff meetings and department-wide emails to remind every employee of your conflict management strategies.

  • Being consistently open

Create a welcoming environment and regularly invite questions from staff about your conflict management process. Make your contact details known to staff and remind them that more information is always available.

You can also prevent workplace disputes by understanding what issues affect and distress your staff most. For example, if conflict often occurs over issues such as pay, bonuses and promotions, then your organisation should offer extra support during periods when these are a focus for the organisation, such as the end of a quarter or the end of financial year. This might include information about the pay and bonus process distributed to staff in easy-to-understand booklets ahead of any key announcements, or having HR staff readily available for confidential discussions with staff if needed. It may be as simple as a few uplifting messages from executives emphasising the value of staff to the organisation, even if they didn’t meet their promotion, sales or bonus goals for the year.

To successfully pre-empt conflict in the workplace, watch teams closely for increased absenteeism, low productivity, staff disengagement, decreased morale and poor retention. Conflict rarely arises suddenly, and these might be indicators that there’s a need to improve strategy for the betterment of workplace culture at large.

During the workplace conflict

If a dispute is underway, there are a few important key things employers can do to ensure it’s handled swiftly and professionally. Follow these steps for effective conflict management, no matter what your organisation or industry:

  • Don’t ignore it

As a manager, when there’s conflict in your team, don’t just hope that it will go away. Even if it appears to have resolved itself, ensure you’re proactive about the welfare of your staff. You don’t need to be overbearing or bullish, but as a manager you need to create a safe and productive environment for your team. Be aware also that any conflict may be affecting other members of the team, not just those in the thick of it.

  • Depersonalise

When the time does come for you to step in, be sure to directly address the issues causing frustration or tension, and avoid making it about specific people or personalities. Focus on positive solutions and resolution throughout the process. Any official policies or documents should echo this too.

  • Independent meditation

If a workplace dispute can’t be settled by staff and managers alone, an independent mediator — that is, a qualified mediator from outside your organisation — should be called in to assist. They’ll help the conflicting parties address their concerns, urging them to listen and respect the other’s point of view. The aim of independent mediation is to settle on a mutually desired outcome. It also reduces the likelihood of absenteeism or an employee resigning, which can be expensive and time-consuming for employers. Mediators also encourage empathy and perspective, powerful conflict management tools that help achieve lasting and meaningful solutions for your team.

  • Adjudication

When mediation fails, you may need to seek adjudication to settle the dispute. It’s preferably to nominate an independent body that both parties agree has the right to make a binding decision.

After settlement

Once a conflict has been resolved, ensure that all involved parties complete any necessary paperwork. This includes a detailed summary of the resolution that’s signed by relevant staff. This is an important process for employers from a legal perspective, but also serves as a learning tool for future conflict management.

Additionally, check in with staff regularly in the weeks and months following the conflict resolution. Is the agreed solution being enacted? Do employees feel more satisfied? Could more be done to improve the situation? Regular, open conversations with staff who’ve been through conflict will ensure that solutions are lasting and staff stay happy and productive.

Conflict resolution is a challenging, but important skill that managers have to learn and refine throughout their careers. Remembering that people are at the core of this process will ensure that you develop policy that’s respectful, benefiting staff and improving culture long-term.