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Approaches to Resolving Interpersonal Conflict in the Workplace an Overview for Managers


									Approaches to Resolving Interpersonal Conflict in the Workplace: an
Overview for Managers
Because each of us possesses a unique set of personal characteristics,
occasional conflicts of personality or interest with others are a
regrettable yet inevitable fact of life. Furthermore, since we spend a
large proportion of our lifetimes at work, often functioning under
pressures and restraints that act as exacerbating factors, workplaces
tend to become a primary site for inter-personal conflict. If such
quarrels are not resolved in an equitable and timely manner, the
resulting outcomes will typically be negative, not only for those
directly involved, but also for co-workers and even organizations as a
On the other hand however, both evidence and experience indicate that
conflict in the workplace is often symptomatic of a healthy, dynamic and
vibrant internal environment. Indeed, it is often said that a workplace
devoid of tensions is in danger of becoming dull and stagnant, and
therefore, is unlikely to foster any real sense of excitement, initiative
or innovation amongst its constituents. In actuality then, conflict, if
properly managed, has the potential to generate positive outcomes for all
If conflict is to be handled in a gainful manner however, it is vitally
important that individuals and organizations develop robust strategies
for coping with conflict in the workplace. This consideration is
especially important for managers, whom are often required to handle
conflicts, and for whom the sheer width, breadth, depth and frequency of
interpersonal-interaction is often staggering. Therefore, in efforts to
build a base of understanding, and with a particular focus on the role
played by managers, let us now examine some of the core a pproaches
employed in dealing with conflict in the workplace; namely: unilateral
resolution, consultation, facilitation, mediation and arbitration.
Unilateral Resolution of Workplace Conflict
During the course of an average day a manager may be involved, either
directly or indirectly, in a variety of interpersonal conflicts of
varying intensities and foci. Not surprisingly, managers will often
intuitively seek to resolve these disagreements by means that are
primarily unilateral in nature.
In simple terms, a unilateral resolution revolves around efforts to
resolve conflict via the application of influence or authority to one
specific person, group, or faction involved in a dispute, and not to the
other(s). For example, when dealing with a common workplace issue such as
bullying or related misconduct, a manager might often respond, almost by
way of reflex, by taking action upon the individual(s) whom are thought
or evidenced to have been the instigators of the incident, while at the
same time, giving little or no attention to those perceived as the
Unilateral resolutions are attractive simply because they seem
comparatively quick and painless to a beleaguered manager: after all,
it’s just a quick witch-hunt, a brief flex of managerial muscle, a few
lashes with company policy and then on with the business at hand… right?
Indeed, as a quick fix solution, few approaches can compare to the
unilateral tack. There are however, a number of potential drawbacks that
warrant discussion.
First and foremost, in the all too common event that no culpable
individual(s) can be found, or more importantly, proven to be at fault,
managers will find that all of their investigative efforts and best
intentions have been for naught. Without a culprit, ideally one that can
be proven to be at fault beyond reasonable doubt, the unilateral approach
to conflict resolution simply does not work. There is also the very real
potential that someone may be wrongly accused, by an over -eager or
misinformed manager for example, or made a ‘scapegoat’ by their
workmates. As a further consideration, even if a clear culprit can be
found, punishing or disciplining the ‘guilty’ party is really only a
‘patch-job’, having little or no effect upon the underlying issues.
Finally, unilateral resolutions largely ignore the role played by the
other side in the conflict, which may leave them feeling neglected, or in
some cases, feeling they have ‘gotten away with it’. This is dangerous
because it can confer to such a party an enticing advantage towards
engaging in the continuation and/or intensification of the situation.
However, all of these factors aside, research has shown that, while far
from ideal, unilateral resolution is often a satisfactory method for
dealing with trivial conflicts, wherein there is relatively little ego
involvement on behalf of the disputing parties and relatively low levels
of potential negative consequence. In the end though, it must be said
that many attempts at unilateral resolution are impractical, irrational
and biased in nature, and thusly, exist as a liability. Truly skilled
managers therefore, should move beyond antiquated notions of the
draconian manager exercising his/her might upon the whelps by raining
down unilateral dictates; acting at once as judge, jury and executioner.
In acknowledgment of these facts, when confronting conflicts within the
workplace, alternative methods should always take precedence.
Consultative Resolution of Workplace Conflict
Personal achievement and satisfaction within the workplace, as with any
other domain of life, owes a great deal to the reciprocal relationships
we hold with significant others. Sadly, when things are going well, we
seldom express our true appreciation for, nor even recognize at times,
the pivotal role that others have played in our success. Only when
conflict arises in the workplace do the relationships we hold with others
come consistently into our field of focus, and typically for all the
wrong reasons at that. When this scrutiny of interpersonal relationships
does occur, individuals involved in a conflict, typically after the
initial heat of the stoush has died out, will often opt to attempt some
sort of consultative resolution on their own initiative.
When taking a consultative approach to conflict resolution dis putants
attempt to take responsibility for, and ownership of, their own disputes.
In this style, disputants attempt to sort out their own conflicts in a
reasonable and pragmatic manner, with those involved advising,
negotiating and counselling each other towards either shared
understandings, a practical compromise or, ideally but very rarely,
outcomes that are desirable for everyone involved.
Resolutions of this nature would of course delight any manager, after
all, its one less problem for you to deal with right…? In the real world
however, anecdotal evidence and the weight of common sense tells us that
the consultative approach is, at best, idealistic. Indeed, while fairy -
tale endings have been known to accrue, we should be mindful that
consultative efforts are equally as likely to result in frustrating
stalemates or the rapid escalation of disputes. This does not mean that
the consultative approach is without merit.
Consultation certainly has the potential to be gainful when employed as
an early-intervention strategy, especially as it can sometimes circumvent
an escalation of matters towards formal resolution procedures and the
involvement of third parties, such as managers or consultants, thereby
saving organizational resources and sparing those that would be required
to intercede a great deal of stress and strain in the process. However,
because consultative resolutions are inherently informal and unsupervised
in nature, they can often run the risk of becoming a liability, unless
all parties involved are sufficiently skilled in negotiation,
interpersonal communications and operating from a place of rationalism
and empathy. Certainly, providing that all of these prerequisites can be
met by those involved in the conflict, there is some potential for
positive results to accrue from the consultative approach.
Of course, unless a manager is actually one of the disputing parties,
they will typically not be involved in the consultative resolution of
conflict, nor perhaps even aware that there is a problem, or that an
attempt at resolution is taking place at all. This might concern some
managers, especially those predisposed to a more dictatorial style, in
that they would find themselves firmly ‘out of the loop’. If one is to
capitalize on the potential gains of consultative conflict resolution it
is crucial that managers can take a step back and allow employees to
attempt to work out their differences. This is not to say however, that a
manager should take a ‘hands-off’ attitude to workplace conflict, but
rather, that they should position themselves as a safety-net, always
vigilant, available and prepared to intervene should things turn sour.
Resolution of Workplace Conflict Through Facilitation
Sometimes there is an obvious need for a third party to intervene in a
given conflict, and more often than not, this responsibility falls
squarely upon the shoulders of a manager. It is an unfortunate reality of
the workplace that some matters simply cannot be resolved by the parties
involved, and that these conflicts, if left unresolved, can tend to
fester. When third-party intervention is required, facilitation will
typically be considered as the first port of call, and if it is not, it
certainly should be.
Often known as the ‘softly-softly’ approach, facilitation is a relatively
informal approach in which a third party, preferably one respected by and
familiar with the disputing parties, brings the complainants together for
discussions in the hope of establishing mutually satisfactory
resolutions. Typically conducted for best effect on a relaxed and neutral
stage, perhaps over drinks, or coffee, or at lunch, facilitation is most
effective when the third party effectively elicits forthright
communication between all the disputants. At times, a facilitator may be
required to play referee, insofar as assuring that everybody has the
chance to speak their mind, make their case and be heard. It is important
however, that the facilitator does not overplay their role in the
proceedings, remaining always a background character that stays as
neutral and objective as possible.
Facilitation is a strategy for conflict resolution that is most potent in
the early-stages of conflicts. Due to its informal air, facilitation need
not cause disruption in the workplace, nor discontent amongst the parties
involved, whom might well feel otherwise intimidated or embarrassed if
called to account under a more formal context. Employed typically for
fairly minor or mild conflicts, facilitation can be an extremely useful
approach for a manager, whom sometimes might have to do as little as get
the parties together and lend his/her presence to proceedings. Certainly,
early informal interventions into conflicts, such as facilitation, should
always be the first response to the identification of a potentially
serious workplace conflict.
On the other hand, as with all approaches, there are issues revolving
around facilitation that should concern a manager. Firstly, there is the
very real potential that disputing parties may agree to meet, or even
accept certain resolutions simply because of the involvement of the third
party, whom can often unwittingly intimidate or guilt -trip disputants,
even by just being involved. Also, half hearted agreements can often
arise out a simple desire, on behalf of the disputants or facilitator, to
escape the situation as expediently as possible in order to get on with
other business, or for fear that other unwelcome issues and secrets might
come to light during the process.
Mediation of Workplace Conflict
Having established that third party conflict interventions are an
unfortunate reality of the modern workplace, there are times when the
subtlety of facilitation simply isn’t enough. When matters escalate
towards disaster, or when pressing conflicts arise that are unlikely to
be resolved in a timely manner by gentler means, a stronger and more
involved stance may need to be adopted by a concerned third party. This
is the point where the potential facilitator, intent on guiding and
aiding in a resolution, must become a focused and driven mediator.
Mediation is defined as a formal process of negotiation conducted in a
controlled environment through which an impartial third party, ideally
someone with no inherent decision-making power in regards to the matter,
takes an active role in guiding disputing parties towards voluntarily
settlement of a dispute. As with facilitation, this is achieved by
opening up the channels of communication and encouraging cooperation and
compromise between the parties involved. Unlike facilitation however,
mediation involves the third party being responsible for the establishing
and enforcing of ground rules regarding the negotiations, assisting in
the articulation of the various positions held by those involved in the
argument and, in most cases, the provision of their own informed,
objective and impartial recommendations.
It is wise to select a mediator that is not directly involved with the
parties in dispute, and never someone with whom the disputants may have a
personal relationship. Because of this, it is vitally important to
exercise caution when using an internal mediator, especially if that
mediator could be perceived as biased. If you are intent on settling a
matter internally though, a relatively independent mediator may be able
to be sourced from another department/branch/division. Of course, the
easiest way to avoid these pitfalls is simply to bring in an independent
mediator. Indeed, there are many private organizations and governmental
bodies that offer highly skilled professional mediators for just such
Needless to say, properly conducted mediation, executed from a position
of neutrality by suitably skilled and experienced mediators, exists as a
powerful tool for resolving conflict in the workplace. Evidence suggests
that, when mediation does work, it tends to produce enduring resolutions
that involve minimal damage to the ego or interests of those involved and
minimum potential for negative ‘spill-over’ in the workplace. Mediation
is therefore widely regarded as an excellent means for resolving serious
and pressing workplace conflicts. Regardless, it is worth noting that the
process of mediation can consume enormous amounts of time and
organizational resources, and thus, should be entered into only after
conducting a cost-benefit analysis or a similar evaluation process.
Resolving Workplace Conflict Through Arbitration
When all other avenues of resolution have been exhausted, and when
everything has come to naught, a legally binding solution to a
particularly troublesome conflict may be suggested, or demanded, as the
only way forward. While typically held as a last resort, a formal process
of arbitration should always remain an option.
Arbitration is a formal process in which a third party, or occasionally
parties, mutually agreed upon by the disputants or appointed by a
suitable authority, renders a rational, legally-binding decision based
upon the interpretation of the available evidence. The arbitrator(s) make
this ruling after a formal hearing that generally involves the
presentation of evidence and oral arguments in a style befitting of
standard court proceedings. While relatively few workplace conflicts find
their way into a court, or board of arbitration, in the most serious of
disputes, lawyers or similar agents of representat ion will often be
solicited by the disputing parties.
As already stated, the results of arbitration are legally binding, and
whilst they may be appealed on sufficient grounds, the ruling is intended
to provide robust resolutions that are enduring. Because of its litigious
nature, the arbitration process holds great power as tool for conflict
resolution and is doubtless an effective system for resolving disputes.
However, there are some serious risk factors that can arise.
Foremost, arbitration presents a considerable risk of generating
undesirable attitudinal and behavioural reactions on the part of the
disputing parties. Regardless of how well it solves the immediate reality
of the problem, arbitration rarely remedies the underlying issues.
Because of this, arbitration can often distance and agitate the opposing
parties, sometimes inducing them to increasingly perceive each other as
self-interested opponents involved in a battle of wits and wills. This is
never productive for a working relationship, and if the disputants are to
go on working together, it can be potentially disastrous. Given these
concerns, arbitration should be employed only in particularly troublesome
or lingering conflicts and only after other approaches, such as
facilitation or mediation, have failed to achieve a satisfactory
This paper undertook a critical examination of five core approaches to
the resolution of conflict in the workplace: unilateral resolution,
consultation, facilitation, mediation and arbitration. Whist this
information is invaluable for everyone involved in employment, from the
point of view of a manager, understanding these varying approaches to
conflict resolution, and their respective strengths and weaknesses, is
absolutely crucial to their proper application in practise. In the final
analysis, the implication for managers is that conflict is not
necessarily counterproductive, but the inability to resolve conflict
definitely is.
Arron Stewart Is 26 years old, lives in Hamilton, New Zealand, and
attends the University of Waikato as a graduate student in Sport &
Leisure with an additional focus on Sociology and Human Resource
Management. A website has been established featuring more information and
selected articles of his work:

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