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How To Successfully Implement Indirect Conflict Management Strategies That Effectively Resolve Disruptions In The Workplace

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How To Successfully Implement Indirect Conflict Management Strategies That Effectively Resolve Disruptions In The Workplace
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How To Successfully Implement Indirect Conflict Management Strategies That Effectively Resolve Disruptions In The Workplace

When you work with a team from different backgrounds and experiences, interpersonal issues are unavoidable and may require an indirect conflict management strategy to find a resolution before the issue completely disrupts the group’s morale and efficiency.

Whether the employees try to take a more direct approach and resolve their communication problems on their own or escalate to a manager or even Human Resources, there are times when the relationship can never truly recover.

In these cases, a more subtle, strategic approach is required to ensure that productivity remains high and morale is unaffected. An indirect approach to conflict management can help mitigate some of these issues and prevent feelings of resentment when upfront and straightforward approaches to conflict resolution appear to no longer be working.

What Is The Difference Between Conflict And Disagreement?

Before we dive deep and define indirect conflict management, we first need to understand the distinction between a disagreement and a conflict in the workplace. A disagreement is by definition a difference in opinion and can be quite common in the workplace. Disagreements can even be the basis for new ideas, allowing the team to think creatively while coming to a solution. Having a disagreement doesn’t necessarily mean negative outcomes. Depending on how the individuals handle the opposing viewpoints and conduct themselves during the conversation, disagreements can lead to productive discussions.

Conversely, a conflict is defined as an “antagonistic state or opposing action of incompatibles.” (Source: Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary). Conflicts almost always end negatively. When the conflict is allowed to fester, deep feelings of hostility, resentment, and distrust are the end results. The affected employees become suspicious of one another, creating a tense working environment as they compete to see who is “right” in the situation. If an intervention doesn’t occur quickly and is managed inappropriately, the situation is guaranteed to be irreparable and destructive for the team.

What is indirect conflict

What Is Indirect Conflict?

Indirect conflict is when the situation has gotten to the point where the employees no longer interact directly with each other. Instead, they resort to avoidance and withdrawal. Even if the other party is a significant factor in their own workflow, the employees will go out of their way to avoid interaction of any kind and will only engage if absolutely necessary.

Another example of how indirect conflict manifests in the workplace is through nonverbal acts of microaggression. This shows up in their body language and their general attitude towards the other person. The tone of voice, stiff pauses or silences, sighs, and eye-rolling are a few common examples. Indirect conflict can also result in more gossiping within the team, eroding any positive work environment efforts. This type of conflict typically evolves into a major source of distraction the longer the issue lasts and causes discomfort for everyone else on the team.

On the other hand, direct conflicts are often more explosive and confrontational in nature. Examples of direct conflict would be an outward challenge of authority or throwing around accusations of others, which must result in HR intervention as the situation escalates. According to the Lee Group, a study done by CCP Inc. (creators of the Myers Briggs Assessment test), 85% of employees experience conflict at some level in the workplace!

Now that we know what indirect conflict looks like in the workplace, how can we best manage these scenarios and help resolve the problem in a meaningful way?

Using An Indirect Approach To Conflict

Using An Indirect Approach To Conflict

Indirect conflict management often requires a finer hand. Ignoring or avoiding the situation entirely, hoping that it will resolve on its own, will only exacerbate the current issues. While the goal is to help repair the relationship, this isn’t always feasible in every case. In these particular instances, we must think strategically about how the employees compromise and collaborate in the future. It’s important to use a forward-thinking approach when considering possible solutions.

Here are some techniques that you can implement to manage indirect conflict:

  • Identify a liaison – This is frequently used between employees during the early stages of conflict. Your liaison needs to be a neutral third party who can clearly and effectively facilitate productive conversations, clarify any immediate misunderstandings, and create traction to get to the desired goal. An HR representative can be an example of this in action. For example, if the conflict on your team is between a manager and their direct report, an HR rep can manage the meeting between the two. They can first give a high-level overview of the goals for the meeting, give each person an opportunity to have their say, reiterate and clarify the message from each employee to eliminate any potential misunderstandings, and ultimately close the meeting with defined next steps, answer any lingering questions, and set expectations. In the absence of HR, a team lead or a mutual colleague can act in this capacity. The objective of this approach is to keep the discussions productive while giving the situation a chance to de-escalate so that this doesn’t need to be conducted in the long term.
  • Decouple – When discussions continue to remain unproductive and the situation increases in intensity, it may be best to reduce communication and contact between the two conflicting parties. There are a few immediate solutions that can be done.
    • Reassess reporting structure – When you need to “decouple” the employees who are having conflict, one of the areas you’ll need to assess is the reporting structure. For example, if the employees in question report to one manager, thus creating a scenario where interaction is unavoidable, you can look at your current managers and see who has the bandwidth to take on a new direct report. Another aspect of this method would also be to understand which manager has the capabilities and experience to deal with a potentially difficult employee. Moving them to a different supervisor will likely result in new job functions, so it’s essential to keep that in mind when evaluating a prospective change in structure.
    • Evaluate workload and job descriptions – Another approach would be to look at their job descriptions, identify areas where they intersect, and adjust or remove accordingly.
    • Transfer – In more extreme cases, a transfer or reassignment could also be an option. However, depending on the severity of the situation, this would involve a nuanced conversation with your employee to discuss the details of the potential transfer and what this would mean for them. Usually, a reassignment will likely result in a positive outcome, but it’s best to practice understanding and compassion during the transition.

Create a buffer

  • Create a buffer – If the conflict isn’t isolated to individuals, but rather whole teams, it would be best to create a buffer in the event that one team cannot produce results as a direct result of the conflict. Building a buffer releases some of the dependency on another and helps ensure that if there’s ever a breakdown in communication that impacts the outcome, there is extra inventory to bridge the gap. Buffers are not normally favored as they can drive up the cost of labor to construct this extra resource.
  • Emphasize the goals – It’s vital to consistently remind your employees about the vision for your company and the goals the team needs to accomplish in order to meet or exceed the mission you’re working towards. This is especially important during the interpersonal conflict. Against the larger picture, the problem seems trivial and counterproductive to achieving the collective goals. For example, if the objective for a scientific group specializing in biology research is to finalize a paper on their findings by the end of the year, they must be reminded that their contributions are in pursuit of a higher cause: understanding and curing diseases. In the midst of indirect conflict, the purpose of the team’s research can easily get lost. Putting their mission in this light can motivate individuals to remain professional and enable them to put their differences aside.
  • Escalate to a higher power – There will be instances where a manager is uncomfortable handling an employee relations issue or is unsure of how to properly solve the situation. This is not uncommon, especially for new managers or team leads. (For the manager’s growth as a leader, it would be beneficial for them to participate in conflict resolution at some point to gain relevant experience.) In these instances, the conflict can escalate to a higher power such as the director or upper-level management. Using the same example of the scientific research group, if there was a conflict between two of the scientists in which their manager is unable to effectively resolve, the manager could escalate directly to the lead scientist who oversees their laboratory who would then take over from that point. However, if the conflict continues to get worse even under the guidance of the lead scientist, this can then be escalated up again to the next senior supervisor. Individuals involved in the conflict may feel passed around using this method without any real results, so it’s important to have managers continually up-to-date on leadership training to avoid repeated escalation.

Conflict resolution meeting

  • Purposeful conflict resolution meetings using effective dialogue – When a conflict comes up in the workplace, a meeting is set by the manager for the employees to establish common ground. As a manager prepares for a conflict resolution meeting, they either have HR draft some recommended talking points or gather guidance from their supervisor on what to say and do. It’s no secret that these can be uncomfortable conversations, in which people usually arrive defensive and unwilling to budge in their position on the matter. Following too closely to a script can make the meeting feel artificial. The end result may feel meaningless, which isn’t true conflict resolution. The talking points from HR and the instructions from your superiors are meant to act as guides, and not to be followed verbatim. It’s helpful to acknowledge both sides of the story, remain neutral, and let the conversation move naturally with your intervention if needed. The employees need to feel like they’ve had the opportunity to be heard in order for the meeting to be truly effective.

Using an indirect approach to conflict is a practice in communication and collaboration. Addressing conflict in this way can help you make effective and positive changes within your team and avoid disruption.

Using an Indirect Approach To Conflict In The Workplace

Conflict in the workplace can be uncomfortable. While inevitable, there are ways to manage these issues in a productive and more subtle way that ensure you can keep production high.

It’s important for leaders to recognize the signs of indirect conflict and address them in quick and powerful ways to get the employees back on track. Using an indirect approach to conflict can help you manage these obstacles as a strong leader with skill and adeptness.

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