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Build healthy conflict resolution skills in your workplace

Conflict is on the rise in our workplaces. One study found that approximately 64 percent of workers have been in a workplace with disputes between colleagues, due primarily to issues such as opposing personality types, lack of communication and different leadership styles.

When left to fester, unresolved conflict can cause severe damage. It is estimated to cost Canadian businesses over $2 billion annually. It negatively impacts peer-to-peer relationships, undermines team cohesion, causes stress, and creates an uncomfortable working environment, which affects how employees show up to work, their behavior, and their motivation to stay with an employer. 

[Use the Unresolved Conflict Quick Survey to estimate the cost of unresolved conflict in your workplace]

When managed properly, healthy conflict can strengthen teams, deepen critical thinking skills and generate new ideas and resolutions.

Understand the barriers to conflict resolution

The National Library of Medicine notes that "conflict management seeks to resolve the disagreement or conflict with positive outcomes that satisfy all individuals involved or is beneficial to the group. However, the perception of conflict is often negative."

Misunderstandings, incivility (perceived rudeness), and differences of opinion can result in unresolved conflict. To avoid this, all parties involved must a) recognize that conflict exists, and b) be willing to move toward resolution.

People engage in conflict with different frames of reference and experiences that influence their perceptions and behaviour. Those who have had the benefit of experiencing or witnessing healthy conflict will likely possess the skills and mindset to work toward resolution. Those who haven't had the same opportunity may:

  • Remain silent 

  • Recruit peer support by complaining but not working to resolve the situation

  • Avoid conversations

  • Take revenge

  • Isolate themselves from peers

Many employees don't know how to regulate their emotions and see any conflict as unfavorable. If people don't feel psychologically safe, even healthy conflict can trigger stress and activate the body's automatic fight/flight/freeze/fawn response.

Build healthy conflict resolution skills

Without a psychologically safe workplace culture, interpersonal interactions can lead to conflict and negatively impact those involved. If nobody speaks up and conflict is not addressed, it can result in mental harm. 

The following coaching tips can help you avoid this risk by creating an environment where people know how to manage and engage in healthy conflict.

  • Talk to your team about conflict. Discuss the types of conflict and the pros and cons of conflict in the workplace. Talking about conflict gets it on the table and allows leaders to teach and coach their team on how to use conflict to help employees and the organization thrive. 

  • Recognize that everyone has their own style when it comes to dealing with conflict. How conflict was dealt with as a child can influence an employee as an adult. You don’t need to be need to be a psychologist and analyze your employees; you just need to be open and aware that everyone has different experiences, perceptions, and beliefs that shape who they are and how they manage conflict.

  • Educate employees and equip them with the right resources. Find short articles, leverage internal resources, and seek tools and information from credible organizations, such as Workplace Safety & Prevention Services, Workplace Strategies for Mental Health and Howatt HR, to build awareness and promote discussions about healthy conflict. 

  • Involve employees in the process. Encourage team members to source and share resources and discuss what and how to deal with conflict. The goal is to drive accountability for learning habits that can help all team members feel more comfortable dealing with conflict and debunk the perception that all conflict is negative.

  • Explore training options to cope with conflict. Most employees have never received training on how to cope with conflict. Training can help people understand how they behave under pressure, recognize counterproductive habits, and acquire knowledge and skills that support healthy conflict resolution.

The more skilled your team becomes at dealing with misunderstandings, perceived incivility, and conflict, the less likely unresolved conflict will fester. Ultimately, the goal is to move towards healthy conflict, which generates positive outcomes by allowing for and encouraging different perspectives, ideas, beliefs, preferences, and solutions.

Get to know the authors – Dr.  Bill Howatt