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How to spot and resolve conflict at work

17 Jul 2018 By Tine Dührr

There are seven steps when a disagreement escalates – and HR needs to understand them intimately, says Tine Dührr

If you have ever watched an evolving conflict, or been part of one yourself, you know how much energy it can take up – not just for the parties involved, but the whole team. That’s why it’s so important, both as a leader and co-worker, that you know how conflicts arise and what you should keep an eye out for.

But what characterises a conflict? Two different conditions need to be fulfilled: first, there should be a disagreement between two parties (for example, they might have different views on how a task should be solved or prioritised) and second, the focus should no longer be just on the task but on the person.

There can be disagreements in teams – sometimes several times a day – without conflict. But when conflict does arise, it can start in many ways. Often tough deadlines and a heavy workload are factors. Being under pressure, and not having the resources to work faster, can be a stress factor that makes tasks more complicated than they actually are. 

If employees are feeling stressed, situations can evolve into conflicts much faster than normal. This is also the case when it comes to changes in the work environment and the organisation, which often make individuals insecure.

To spot an arising conflict, you should be looking at behaviours. If one of your co-workers begins acting differently, doesn’t want to cooperate with others, or is more introverted than usual, you should consider if there is conflict building up.

No matter what kind of conflict you are looking at, they follow the same script, which can be summarised in seven stages:

Disagreement

An outright conflict has yet to arise, but there is a falling out. The parties are hopefully working on a compromise or a solution.

It becomes personal

The disagreement takes a slight turn. The parties are now starting to think negatively about one another. One might think the other is selfish or incompetent.

The problem grows

The first disagreement is no longer the real problem. In fact, all previous disagreements or issues are being brought back into play.

Talking stops

One or both parties stops talking to and engaging with the other. At this point, alliances with others are often formed.

The escalation

The lack of communication leads to negative or hostile interpretations of the other party’s behaviour. These are used as a right to perform hostile acts.

Hostile actions

One or both parties starts to sabotage, exclude or bully the other party. They fail to share knowledge and/or ignore the other's inquiries.

Polarisation

This is the point of no return. If the conflict cannot be resolved, the parties may have to be separated. This can be done by one leaving the workplace or moving to another department.

A key way to manage and ultimately stop the conflict is by talking. Positive and open communication is the only way. This means listening and understanding the other party – even if you are angry and hurt.

Even more important is understanding where the other party is coming from, what they need from you, and how you can resolve the conflict together. 

This also means you need to take off the negative glasses and think about the other party more positively – because when the personal part of things is removed, it is much easier to actually talk about how to resolve the dispute. This can be done through brainstorming and negotiations.

Tine Dührr is a digital content manager at Finduddannelse.dk – a Danish search engine for further education. 

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