Conflict response for leaders

The following conflict resolution process provides a guideline and techniques that can be helpful in managing a conflict between co-workers. This can be especially effective when stress or mental health is a factor. This respectful approach focuses on solutions rather than disagreement.

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Conflicts between employees may be difficult to resolve especially when mental health issues including stress are a factor. Conflict resolution can be intimidating or overwhelming when employees are required to discuss disagreements face to face, this approach allows for solutions with limited confrontation.

This approach may not be sufficient to address more serious violations such as harassment, discrimination, or threats of violence. More information is available in Harassment and bullying prevention and Violence prevention.

Conflict resolution process

The individual who facilitates this process of conflict resolution could be a leader, union representative, human resources consultant or another person who’s able to remain objective and has good communication skills. This process doesn’t require certification but does require a level of emotional intelligence and composure. For the purposes of this discussion we have used the term facilitator to describe the individual who is conducting the conflict resolution process.

Individual interviews

This process focuses on a commitment to solutions and changed behaviours rather than finding blame. To begin the process, the facilitator meets with each employee separately and privately to explain the entire process and fully explore three key questions (described below). The goal is to uncover what each employee believes is necessary, in terms of workplace behaviours moving forward, to maintain or restore a professional working relationship.

Crafting the agreement

The facilitator then writes up a reasonable and specific agreement using as many of the suggestions as possible that were shared by both employees. The agreement should not make judgements about who is right or wrong.

One agreement applies equally to both parties

The agreement should focus on new ways of interacting that both parties will be equally responsible for going forward. It doesn’t change job-related roles or responsibilities but articulates respectful and practical ways of interacting that help each person feel their perspective is valued.

Share separately for feedback

The draft agreement should be shared with each employee separately to ask if there’s any part they can’t live with and if so, why? Ensure each employee knows this is just a draft and the employer will determine the final wording. The facilitator will make only necessary and reasonable changes.

Review together for a shared understanding

Once agreement has been reached, the facilitator brings both employees together. The facilitator reads the agreement aloud and both parties confirm in writing that they will follow the terms as a new way of interacting. Each should be supported in doing so, but also held accountable if they fail to follow the agreement. The agreement will state how the employer will address non-compliance. In most cases, it will provide a respectful and dignified way to continue the relationship in a more professional manner. In rare cases, the agreement could articulate the basis for future discipline. 

Considerations before starting

Rule out rule

Consider any other circumstances that may contribute either party’s behaviour. While your goal is to focus on respectful behaviour impacting the workplace, it may be necessary to consider if other accommodations may be required.

Plan to check-in with each employee throughout the process

These conversations aren’t easy. Employees can be surprised by allegations made by a co-worker. Reiterate that the goal of the process is to provide them with an opportunity to continue to work in a professional, but also respectful and healthy, manner with their co-worker. Offer any supports, including access to an employee assistance program if available, if either employee appears overly stressed throughout the process.

Consider other team members who may be affected by the conflict

Check-in with other team members to ensure they aren’t being impacted by any additional stressors related to the conflict, but always ensure confidentiality of the conflict resolution process. Understand what each person needs to work professionally to help inform your approach to the agreement. If the conflict is systemic or affecting most of the team, you may wish to use the free resources and broader approach found in Psychologically safe interactions workshop.

Key questions for the individual interviews

When the facilitator meets privately with each employee, they should ask the following questions and allow time for a full response before moving on. The facilitator can uncover many other suggestions or issues by continuing to ask, "And what else?" each time it appears that the employees may have provided their full answer. This helps the facilitator avoid solving one issue only to have another surface in the future. It’s reasonable to allow the individual some time to vent about their situation, but the facilitator should avoid agreeing or disagreeing, instead continually refocusing on the question of potential solutions.

  1. What do you need to work professionally with this person?

    This conversation should stay focused on the specific, measurable behaviours that will allow the employees to work together in a professional manner. Opinions, assumptions or judgments may arise in the conversation, but should not be included in the agreement. Record all employee suggestions from the meeting in a way that can be applied to both parties equally. For example, rather than saying, "Joe yells too much," the document could read, "Conversations will be in a calm and clear tone of voice."

  2. What will you do differently to contribute to a successful working relationship?

    This question focuses on the employee's professional behaviour at work and awareness of how it impacts other people. For example, if the employee says that they’re already doing everything they can and don’t need to do anything differently, the facilitator should ask them to specify what it is that they do now to contribute to a good working relationship. The response should be recorded in a specific and measurable manner as it can also form part of the agreement. The facilitator should also help each employee think about how their own reactions may contribute to the problems or make them worse.

  3. How do you believe we should deal with any future issues?

    This helps to establish a process for resolving future conflict. This should include how issues will be dealt with in the moment (telling the manager, resolving on their own, involving others, etc.) and consequences if unacceptable behaviours arise again or new ones emerge.

Facilitator tips and strategies

  • Avoid making promises. Tell both parties that every effort will be made to find a solution that makes it easier for them to come to work, do a good job, and leave with energy at the end of the day.
  • Ensure confidentiality. Never repeat anything that either employee has discussed in confidence. Only refer to the solutions that are agreed upon.
  • Preserve the dignity of everyone involved. Throughout the process, ensure that the requirements in the agreement are reasonable workplace expectations that apply equally to both parties, and they’re consistent with workplace policies. This shouldn’t interfere with work roles and responsibilities as it focuses on personal, respectful communication approaches and interactions.
  • Allow reasonable opportunity for venting. Neither agree nor disagree with any negative or derogatory statements. Refocus the conversation on getting to an agreement about behaviours going forward, rather than rehashing who did what.
  • Focus on defining specific changes in behaviour at work. Link approaches to reasonable workplace standards and policies. Try to avoid approaches that focus on personal characteristics. For example, asking someone to contribute only positive feedback in team settings and critical feedback only to the supervisor in private can be more effective than asking them to "be nicer."
  • Avoid forced apologies. Explore alternatives. Forced apologies are often requested but are rarely effective when they are not genuine and don’t address specific behaviour change in a solution-based way. If an employee insists on an apology, ask why. Continue to ask why for each successive answer. It’s unlikely that a forced apology will result in permanently changed behaviours. Offer that instead of an apology, a commitment to a change in behaviour will more likely produce the result they want to see. Reframe a demand for an apology into a request for a change in behaviour.
  • Ensure that you gather responses that are specific and measurable behaviours (e.g. not raising a voice louder than normal conversation level, refraining from sarcastic comments, etc.).
  • Seek voluntary personal commitments to behave differently towards each other. This is usually more sustainable as a solution than enforcing behaviour changes, as forced behaviour will continue only when it’s being closely managed. A personal commitment is more likely to be sustained even if the change is difficult. 
  • Manage expectations in the face of unreasonable requests. For example, requesting that a co-worker “stop looking unhappy” while experiencing clinical depression. If this is related to a disability rather than to work-related behaviours, and it causes no serious harm to others, it’s not a reasonable request. Another example is expecting that all co-workers perform at the level of the top performer. This level is often the exception and may not be reasonable for most employees. For more techniques to guide a discussion about performance see Performance management.
  • Solicit solutions from both employees. Then prepare an agreement that:
    • Keeps language focused on future positive behaviours and solutions.
    • Avoids including past negative behaviours or problems.
    • Focuses on solutions that are specific and measurable and has dates for follow up.
    • Includes actions that will be taken by you as facilitator or others that are pertinent to the agreement.
  • Write the agreement in inclusive language that honours both employees’ requests and commitments. Ensure it requires each of them to equally adhere to the specific requests made. It could also include the expectation for generally respectful behaviour towards each other and the process itself.
  • Share the draft agreement privately. Allow each employee to review and offer feedback. It’s ultimately up to the facilitator to decide if any changes will be included, but the intention is to have each party committed to the agreement going forward. This is most likely to happen to if they feel that it allows them to maintain their dignity and self-respect.
  • Prepare each employee for the review meeting by reminding them there’s nothing they need to say unless they want to make a positive comment to contribute to the process. They will have already seen and generally agreed to the contents of the document.
  • Read the entire agreement to them and then ask each employee: Will you be able to engage in the behaviours requested in this agreement?
  • Get agreement in writing that if these changes take place, each employee will be able to move forward in a respectful and professional manner. Make sure both employees, regardless of the level of authority, understand they will be supported in doing so, but held accountable if they fail to follow the agreement.

For employees who are seeking ways to resolve future conflicts on their own, you may want to suggest they read Resolving personal conflict.

Workshop materials

Resolving conflict workshop

These workshop materials help leaders and employees learn how to preserve the dignity of all parties, avoid forced and insincere apologies, commit to improving relationships and develop an accountability process.

The majority of content on this page is adapted with permission from Resolving Workplace Issues (© 2011 Mary Ann Baynton & Associates Consulting).

Contributors include.articlesMary Ann Baynton

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