Can employees resolve their own conflict?


How can organisations create an environment where employees resolve conflicts themselves? There are two myths that we need to debunk before we can get into this topic meaningfully.

The first myth; that conflict can be avoided. 

Any leader who tells you they don’t experience conflict in their workplace, is deluded. Conflict is inevitable because we are humans. If a leader doesn’t believe they have conflict, most likely it’s gone underground and that’s an altogether different problem to have. 

Every human has been shaped in a way that’s unique to only them. Their childhood, the parenting they received, the groups they joined, the teachers that influenced them, their life experiences, the traumas and the celebrations. No two people will ever view world the same way. 

Conflict that’s underground is hard to treat. Conflict that’s surfaced, can be resolved or used for good. 

The second myth; that conflict is bad.

Conflict gets a bad reputation in my opinion, particularly in the UK where it’s more accepted to be “nice and polite”. If you embrace conflict, you’re likely to be considered a trouble-causer, rebel, the black sheep, a maverick even. Humans generally like things to bumble along nicely without too much stress. Change and conflict induce stress and anxiety for most. So rather than deal with the difficult, the try to suppress the conflict. 

For those that are brave enough to call out the difficulty or the conflict, lean into it, speak truth to it, well they know something others don’t. That out the other side of conflict, even better stuff awaits. 

We are not sheep and nor should we be. The purpose for humans is evolution. 

Conflict should be seen as a beautiful signpost for evolution and innovation. When conflict appears, growth has potential.

Rather than suppress conflict and try to create a “nice” working environment (where nobody really knows what anybody really thinks or feels), why not embrace I honesty instead? 

Maverick leaders understand the power of enabling conflict. It contributes to keeping their organisations healthy.

Here are my five steps for enabling employees to resolve conflict themselves:

  1. Acknowledge that conflict is a good thing and is welcome in your organisation. It would be wise to put more words to your definition of conflict, for example, we welcome diverse thinking and encourage innovation rather than ‘fisty cuffs at dawn’. You may even want to give some examples of what behaviours are ok and which would substitute a red card!
  • Be clear what your conflict boundaries are. You want to encourage openness that’s in service of your company’s mission, not conflict for conflict’s sake. So be really clear (and proud) about your company mission. Encourage employees to challenge and optimise conflict opportunities if it’s in service of your mission.  
  • Create a culture of psychological safety. A term created by the work of Amy C Edmundson, who discovered that innovation can only truly thrive if team members feel safe to speak up, experiment and challenge. Hint – you cannot create a psychologically safe team overnight. It requires tender loving care, devotion, and strong leadership. 
  • Encourage an adult-to-adult working environment. It’s my opinion, that every young adult should be given therapy before they enter the working world. We carry our ‘life laundry’ with us everywhere we go. All the life events that taught us (consciously or unconsciously how to behave), shape how we do or don’t show up in work and life. Taking an adult approach, means that we’re encouraged to take greater responsibility for ourselves, and our laundry. 

In Transactional Analysis, which is the life’s work of Eric Berne, we are invited to consider all the places where we get triggered into behaving from unhelpful roles, such as victim (poor me) or parent (how dare you). From a more adult perspective, we’d be more open to exploring the what if as two equal human beings. A chance to figure out a way forward that serves all of us.

  • Invest in conflict training and provide ongoing support for learning. It’s no good creating the conditions, setting the vision, and being clear about the boundaries. If you’re expecting people to adopt new skills, people need to be trained and supported in their learning journey.

Learning together is a great way of building psychological safety and cultivating trust. Those are essential ingredients if you want to embrace conflict. Learning can be both horizontal (adding tools to your toolbox) and vertical (using those tools to enhance your own understanding of yourself and expanding beyond your current boundaries).  

I always recommend that organisations invest in one-to-one coaching or group supervision to ensure learning is integrated and not just stored in the toolbox under the ‘oooh it didn’t work first time so I’ll not do that again folder’.

By and large introducing a concept of ‘embracing conflict’ into a business for the first time is akin to a cultural revolution. Cultural revolutions typically need change (mainly in ways of working). This needs to happen at three levels, board, middle managers and the wider team. All three parties need to be onboard for it to be effective. They need to be aware (communicate your mission), able (educate through training) and committed (external support to bed in).

In summary, you can’t be seen as a serious maverick leader if you’re not embracing conflict. Conflict is an indicator that innovation is possible. If innovation is possible, you’re on to the possibility of a discovery, a new way of working, the next big thing. 

Creating a safe environment, that encourages (maybe even celebrates) conflict will get you off to a good start. Training everyone to be conflict ninjas and providing external support (while they practice their new skills in a psychological safe way) will help to embed new behaviours and also flag any blocks and barriers within the business.