By Dr. Kellen Kiambati PhD. HRM(K) CBPO(A)
Leadership is a full-contact sport. If you cannot or will not address conflict in a healthy, productive fashion, you should not be in a leadership role. The issues surrounding conflict resolution can be best summed-up by adhering to the following ethos: “Do not fear conflict; embrace it – it’s your job.” While you can try and avoid conflict, you cannot escape it. The fact of the matter is that conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. It will find you whether you look for it or not. The ability to recognize conflict, understand its nature , and be able to bring swift and just resolution to it will serve you well as a leader – the inability to do so may well be your downfall.
For example, how many times over the years have you witnessed otherwise savvy professionals destroying themselves because they wouldn’t engage out of fear of a possible conflict? Putting one’s head in the sand and hoping that conflict will pass you by is not the most effective methodology for problem solving. Conflict rarely resolves itself – in fact, conflict normally escalates if not dealt with proactively and properly. It is not at all uncommon to see what might have been a non-event manifest itself into a monumental problem if not resolved early on.
Drama queens and kings
One of my favourite examples is the weak leader who cannot deal with subordinates who use emotional deceit as a weapon of destruction. Every workplace is plagued with manipulative people who use emotion to create conflict in order to cover-up for their lack of substance. These are the drama queens and kings who when confronted about wrongdoing and poor performance are quick to point the finger in another direction. They are adept at using emotional tirades which often include crocodile tears, blame shifting, little lies, half-truths and other trite manipulations to get away with total lack of substance. The only thing worse than what I’ve just described is leadership that doesn’t recognize such a challenge or does nothing about it. Real leaders do not play favourites. In addition, they do not get involved in drama, and they certainly do not tolerate manipulative, self-serving behaviour.
Developing effective conflict resolution skill sets is an essential component of building a sustainable business model. Unresolved conflict often results in loss of productivity, stifling of creativity, and the creation of barriers to cooperation and collaboration.
Perhaps most importantly for leaders, good conflict resolution ability equals good employee retention. Leaders who do not deal with conflict will eventually watch their good talent walk out the door in search of a healthier and safer work environment.
While conflict is a normal part of any social and organizational setting, its challenge lies in how one chooses to deal with it. Concealed, avoided or otherwise ignored, conflict will likely fester only to grow into resentment, create withdrawal or cause factional infighting within an organization.
In any situation involving more than one person, conflict can arise. The causes of conflict range from philosophical differences and divergent goals to power imbalances. Unmanaged or poorly managed conflicts generate a breakdown in trust and loss of productivity. For small businesses, where success often hinges on the cohesion of a few people, loss of trust and productivity can signal the death of the business. With a basic understanding of the five conflict management strategies, small business owners can deal better with conflicts before
they escalate beyond repair.
The accommodating strategy essentially entails giving the opposing side what it wants. The use of accommodation often occurs when one of the parties wishes to keep the peace or perceives the issue as minor. For example, a business that requires formal dress may institute a “casual Friday” policy as a low-stakes means of keeping the peace with the rank and file. Employees who use accommodation as a primary conflict management strategy, however, may keep track and develop resentment.
The avoidance strategy seeks to put off conflict indefinitely. By delaying or ignoring the conflict, the avoider hopes the problem will resolve itself without a confrontation. Those who actively avoid conflict frequently have low esteem or hold a position of low power. In some circumstances, avoidance can serve as a profitable conflict management strategy, such as after the dismissal of a popular but unproductive employee. The hiring of a more productive replacement for the position soothes much of the conflict.
Collaboration works by integrating ideas set out by multiple people. The objective is to find a creative solution acceptable to everyone. Collaboration, though useful, calls for a significant time commitment not appropriate to all conflicts. For example, a business owner should work collaboratively with the manager to establish policies, but collaborative decision-making regarding office supplies wastes time which should be better spent on other activities.
The compromising strategy typically calls for both sides of a conflict to give up elements of their position in order to establish an acceptable, if not agreeable, solution. This strategy prevails most often in conflicts where the parties hold approximately equivalent power. Business owners frequently employ compromise during contract negotiations with other businesses when each party stands to lose something valuable, such as a customer or necessary service.
Competition operates as a zero-sum game, in which one side wins and the other loses. Highly assertive personalities often fall back on competition as a conflict management strategy. The competitive strategy works best in a limited number of conflicts, such as emergency situations. In general, business owners benefit from holding the competitive strategy in reserve for crisis situations and decisions that generate ill-will, such as pay cuts or layoffs. For the human resource professional, it is important to be able to identify conflict in
the workplace and know how to quickly and effectively resolve the underlying issues in a
Resolving conflict in a positive manner can lead to much-improved professional
and personal relationships. Mastering a few fundamental conflict resolution skills can enable you to become a better leader, decision-maker, co-worker and friend. Whether dealing with a disagreement between co-workers or breaking through a standstill in a job contract negotiation, conflict resolution is best approached through a deliberate process that considers
the different conflict resolution styles of each participant. If it is done well, conflict resolution can save relationships, time and resources, while improving productivity and helping move projects forward toward completion.
Five Steps to Conflict Resolution
1. Set the Scene
• Promoting good relationships through mutual respect and courteous behaviour is
• Keep the problem separate from the person and debate the real issues.
• Pay attention to each person’s interests; listen carefully and respectfully.
• Be open to exploring all options. In this phase, active listening skills are essential. Restate or paraphrase others’ positions to be sure you hear and understand them correctly.
2. Gather Information
An important conflict resolution tool, especially in a human resource setting, is the ability to go deeper than the surface to really get an understanding of an individual’s underlying needs, concerns and point of view. To do this effectively, be objective – not personal; and try to view your actions from the standpoint of the other person.
Here are four ways to effectively gather information:
• Identify the issues. Be clear and concise; don’t try to solve too many problems at
• Listen with empathy. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to really understand how the problem is affecting him or her.
• Use “I” statements. Rather than starting sentences with “you,” which might sound accusatory or lead to defensiveness, try conveying only how you feel and what you observe: “I feel that this problem is affecting the work environment,” or “I’m hearing that this issue is causing you stress outside the office. Is that accurate?”
• Clarify feelings. For instance, don’t assume that a supervisor is angry with a member of
staff when he actually feels frustrated about their conflicting communication styles.
3. Agree to the Problem
Conflict resolution skills can only come into play when the true problem is identified. Be
sure everyone agrees on what the problem is before moving forward. Remember
that different roles, interests and conflict resolution styles can cause people to perceive problems very differently. Putting aside individual goals to come to a mutually agreeable and beneficial solution is an important step in conflict resolution.
4. Brainstorm Possible Solutions
Gathering the involved parties together for a brainstorming session not only helps to resolve the problem quickly, but it makes everyone feel like they are part of the solution. Here are a few tips for successful brainstorming:
• Be open to all ideas. Think “quantity” over “quality.” You’ll probably discard most ideas
before the exercise is over.
• Move quickly. Avoid clarifying or evaluating each idea – either can stop creative thinking
in its tracks.
• List every idea. Whoever is listing the ideas should not be in charge of editing them.
• Expand on each other’s ideas. Ask for input from the group – this is where solutions are
• Be creative. Allow for out-of-the-box ideas, controversy, and even silly ideas. You never
know what will inspire the thought that can become the actual solution.
5. Negotiate a Solution
By this point, it’s possible that all parties understand each other’s positions better, leading to conflict resolution. If not, it may be necessary to step in and negotiate a mutually satisfying solution. Negotiation is a strong conflict resolution skill that professionals can apply to countless situations throughout their careers.
By learning effective negotiation skills, human resource professionals can quickly distinguish themselves not only as valuable HR professionals, but as true leaders. Conflict is a natural part of life that can sometimes make its way into the workplace. As a member of the human resource team, it is your responsibility to help identify and resolve conflict within the workplace. By honing your skills in effective conflict resolution, you can help position yourself as a valuable leader in your organization.
Dr. Kellen Kiambati holds a PhD in business administration with a focus on strategic management from JKUAT and an MBA from KEMU. She is a certified business associate (CBPA) and a member of the Institute of Human Resource Management of Kenya. She is also the author of Business Research Methods and can be reached on: firstname.lastname@example.org.