Options for Resolving Workplace Disputes
Nov. 3, 2022
Numerous workplace conflict resolution approaches and tools exist to help ease tensions and resolve conflicts. The techniques mentioned in this blog are just some options available to handle chronic ongoing disputes among team members. Some of the options include:
Neutral Third-Party Intervention/Mediation
Direct or Indirect Manager Intervention/Mediation
Formal Conflict Resolution Approach
Informal Conflict Resolution Approaches
Independent Listening Sessions
No notes with action items/follow at the end
Notes with action items/follow at the end
Causes of Workplace Conflict
Determining the underlying causes and contributing factors for ongoing disputes is essential to eliminate those conflicts. In some instances, the conflicting parties might point to specific events or encounters, but often, deep-seated conflicts result from a multitude of interactions, and the tensions accumulate over time.
The causes of workplace conflicts are unlimited, but most workplace disputes fall into a few categories, including:
Real of Perceived Slights or Offenses
Real or perceived slights include -- ignoring input, discounting ideas, failing to respond to e-mails or inquiries, dismissive responses in writing, interrupting comments during meetings, dismissive responses during meetings, the tone in addressing one another, or exclusion from meetings, activities, or projects. One instance could be enough to cause a person to be offended, but multiple instances will increase the tension and damage the working relationship.
Real or Perceived Favoritism
Conflicts can escalate when one person believes that team leaders favor the other person. Real or perceived favoritism can arise when leaders appear to take one person’s side, advice, or recommendations more frequently than the other person. The perception of favoritism also occurs when one person believes that the managers ask them to concede to the other person or “see the other person’s side” more frequently than asking the other person to “see their side.”
Personality differences cause conflicts. As the Four Groups 4-G tool demonstrates, some work personality types work better together. Other work personalities are more prone to conflict and disagreement.
In addition to workplace personality differences, personality traits can exacerbate workplace conflicts. Personality traits that aggravate disputes include imposter syndrome, inferiority complex, insecurity, superiority complex, and overconfidence. Any of these traits can lead employees to take offense to actions or comments by others when no offense was intended. These personality attributes can cause hypersensitivity to being questioned about work assignments and can lead to misinterpretations concerning motives of others in the workplace.
Workplace disputes can be challenging because frequent interactions can cause the conflicts to spiral. A “conflict spiral” usually consists of one person believing they are the victim and the other person is the villain. In most conflicts, both sides view themselves as the victims, and the other person is the villain. When at least one person sees the other as a villain, that person perceives everything the other person does with hostile or malicious intentions, even when the other person is trying to be helpful or benevolent.
Conflict Resolution Options
Neutral Third-Party Intervention/Mediation:
One preferred approach to managing conflicts in the workplace is to engage a neutral third party with mediation training to resolve the dispute. In this approach, the managers oF the conflicting employees are not directly involved in attempting to resolve any disputes. Instead, someone from a different part of the organization (usually H.R.) or someone from outside the company to resolve the dispute.
Mediation provides a safe, structured, and focused space to examine the dispute, the underlying issues contributing to the conflict, and how to address the issues. The objective of a mediation is for the disputing individuals to reach an agreement to end the conflict. The ideal solution is one the parties develop themselves with the mediator as a guide to resolution. The role of the mediator is to facilitate conversation and not dictate the solution.
Mediation can be an empowering process. Rather than a manager stepping in to mandate a particular course of action, mediation allows the conflicting parties to craft the solutions for themselves. Mediation encourages the involved parties to generate their own options and develop their own plans for ending the dispute.
In terms of personal benefits, mediation allows parties to move beyond a simple binary view of the conflict with the help of a third-party neutral mediator. Often people come to mediations with very black-and-white perspectives. They often think they are the ‘victim’ fighting against a powerful, sinister “other.” Depending on the dynamics in an organization or on a team, those individuals may also feel like the managers or supervisors are biased against them or unfairly favor the other person involved in the dispute.
Mediators help the disputing individuals understand the other person’s perspective and see a deeper and more complex version of the conflict. In short, a good mediator will help the people involved in the conflict focus on the root cause of the dispute.
Using an impartial third-party to mediate the conflict avoids appearances of conflict or favoritism that can happen when managers or supervisors are involved in the dispute resolution process. One of the advantages of this approach is that the managers remain free from the conflict. The risks of perceived favoritism or conflicts of interest are likely when the person handling the dispute is the manager of one of the employees but not the manager of the other or when one of the disputants has been promoted or received superior raises from the manager handling the dispute resolution process.
Direct or Indirect Manager Intervention/Mediation
Well-trained third-party neutrals are not always available to manage workplace conflicts. If an independent neutral mediator is unavailable, managers or indirect supervisors can address the conflict. When managers or indirect managers must handle the conflict, they have options available to help them address the conflict.
An option available is to conduct a formal workplace conflict resolution mediation like an independent-neutral third-party mediator would. Workplace dispute mediation can take several different forms.
Face-to-Face all Participants Present
In a traditional mediation, all the participants are present at the same time at the beginning of the process. Gathering the conflicting individuals together for an opening caucus allows everyone to hear directly from each other about their perspectives on the dispute.
With a traditional opening session, the mediator opens the session by giving an introduction explaining the ground rules and objectives for the mediation. After the mediator makes an introductory statement, the parties each give their perspectives on the conflict. Most mediators set rules that require the parties to hold their questions until the other party is done talking. After the parties' opening perspectives, the mediators allow each side to ask the other questions.
After the questions phase, mediators usually then hold separate meetings called “caucuses" with the disputing parties. During these private sessions, the parties can share concerns and complaints they want kept confidential.
These private sessions allow the mediator to ask questions to determine the root cause of the dispute. Mediators often ask questions to determine the conflict's root cause and what the conflicting parties would like to see to improve the situation or eliminate the dispute.
Many mediators use the “what, why” method to determine the underlying reasons for the employee conflict. This technique involves asking the parties probing questions in sessions apart from the other employee.
Mediators ask variations of what the parties want out of the dispute resolution process. The “what” series of questions include:
What is important to you regarding this dispute or tension?
What would you prefer the solution to be?
What would you like to be different in the future?
What would you like the other person to do differently?
What would your ideal situation be with the other person?
What would your ideal relationship be with the other person?
What does your ideal work situation look like?
What is your goal or objective through this conflict resolution process?
What would you like to see as the outcome of this process?
What would be the ideal resolution of this dispute from your perspective?
What do you think the other person’s motivations were for acting in the way that led to the dispute or tension?
The “what” questions typically lead to the BATNA, MLANTA, and WATNA inquiries. “BATNA” stands for “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement” and represents what the disputing party believes would be the best outcome for her if there is no resolution to the conflict or the best outcome if she has no say in the resolution. In workplace disputes, sometimes the party’s perceived “best alternative” is to never work with the other person again. However, that is frequently not possible when the dispute involves two people on a small team.
The acronym “MLANTA” stands for the “Most Likely Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.” MLANTA is what the party thinks is most likely to occur if she cannot reach an agreement with the other person. Usually, parties in workplace disputes perceive the MLANTA to be the continuation of the status quo – they expect nothing to change and the stress, anxiety, animosity, and dysfunction to continue.
“WATNA” is the acronym for the “Worst Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.” WATNA is what the disputing party expects to be the worst outcome for her if she does not reach a resolution of the dispute with her coworker. Sometimes the employee perceives the worst alternative as getting fired or being forced to resign due to the conflict. The concern about the potential of being fired can be especially strong when the employee thinks management favors the other party in the dispute.
Below are two figures representing the BATNA, MLANTA, and WATNA concepts. The first suggests approaches to determining each person’s best, most likely, and worst expected outcomes if they cannot reach an agreement with the other person. Addressing the BATNA, MLANTA, and WATNA helps the participants understand what happens if they do not participate in the conflict resolution process in good faith or if they fail to find a solution by working with the other employee.
The second image below is a blank BATNA, MLANTA, and WATNA chat that a mediator use to record what each participant thinks are the alternatives if no agreement happens. This type of chart is useful for the mediator to track the anticipated options and guide discussions with the parties after the parties have expressed what they think are the BATNA, MLANTA, and WATNA.
In addition to asking the parties the “what” questions, good mediators drill down with “why” questions. The “why” questions help both the parties and the mediator understand why the conflict occurred. The “why questions” also help the mediator understand why the employees answered the “what” questions the way they did. The “why” questions can also help each of the conflicting parties understand the other person’s viewpoint and version of the events leading to the conflict. Some of the “why” questions include:
Why do you think the other person acted the way she did?
Why would you prefer your preferred solution?
Why would you like your situation to be different in the future?
Why would you like the other person to act differently toward you?
Why is your ideal solution with the other person your ideal solution?
Why do you think the other person has acted the way she has?
One approach with the “why” questions that many mediators take to uncover the root cause of the dispute is the “five whys method.” The “five whys method” involves asking “why” at least five times in a row in response to the disputants’ answers. In response to each successive question, the mediator asks a “why” question.
Participants in Separate Rooms Throughout the Mediation Sessions
An alternative to all the participants being present together for at least part of the mediation is for the participants to be in separate rooms throughout the discussions. In this format, the mediator speaks with the parties separately and “shuttles” back and forth between the employees, conveying messages from one person to the other.
A disadvantage of the employees remaining separate during the entire process is that they never get to hear directly from the other employee. In those situations, the employees never get the opportunity to tell the other how they feel directly, and the likelihood that they continue to demonize each other remains elevated.
Less Formal Resolution Processes
If the disputants are reluctant to participate in a formal mediation, less formal “Listening Sessions” might be beneficial in helping the parties find a solution to their conflict. Dispute resolution experts use Listening Sessions to help ease team tension and improve team dynamics.
During Listening Sessions, managers ask many of the same questions they would ask during mediations, but without the formality of the mediation process. The key to Listening Sessions is to ensure the parties are heard, understood, and that their feelings and beliefs are recognized. Listening Sessions can take multiple forms.
No Notes Listening Sessions
Disputing individuals sometimes do not want notes taken during the Listening Sessions. Instead, they simply want to be heard. The freedom to speak without the comments being documented can open the dialogue and allow the employee to speak more freely than if notes were being taken.
Even at the end of a “no notes session,” the dispute resolution expert will ask if there are specific action items the employee wants them to take following the meeting. For instance, they ask whether there is anything the employee wants them to discuss with the other person or questions they want asked of the other person.
Full Notes Listening Sessions
Other times, the individuals are receptive to the idea of notetaking. In these instances, the dispute resolution experts are free to take notes during the sessions. In those situations, at the end of the meeting, the resolution experts still ask what they can share with the other person and what action the employee would like to see them take.
Workplace conflicts cost companies billions of dollars every year. Conflicts slow progress, interfere with productivity, and impact company culture. Quickly resolving conflicts between co-workers improves employee, team, and company morale. To the extent possible, managers should explore dispute resolution solutions as early as possible to prevent conflicts from lingering and creating harmful workplace environments. Trained mediators and workplace conflict resolution experts can help solve disputes among employees and restore peace to the workplace.