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Best Conditions for Workplace Conflict Resolution: When Can it Work?

From Jeremy Pollack’s Peacebuilding blog:

In workplace conflict resolution, just as in any peacebuilding effort, much of the success lies in the parties’ motivation to resolve the dispute. Of course, the conflict management specialist’s experience and talent is a large factor in a successful peacebuilding effort; but if the parties are not particularly motivated or are simply unwilling to fully participate in good faith, there is only so much a peacebuilder can do.

Especially in long-standing or deeply emotional conflict at work, the parties’ must be somewhat intrinsically motivated to move past their history of clashes and perceived wrongdoings to get to a state of productive cooperation with each other. While a variety of factors play into their desire to move forward, there is one condition under which the motivation is typically strong and a couple of conditions under which motivation to resolve often ceases to exist. These conditions are critical to recognize when engaging in a potential peacebuilding process or relationship mediation effort.

When Does Workplace Conflict Resolution Work Best?

Mutually Perceived Competence: Regardless of the interpersonal issues at play, workplace conflict resolution works best when both of the parties believes the other is good at his/her job and is therefore valuable to the company. Perhaps there are differences in communication styles, work ethics, or general personality traits, but if the parties believe one another to be competent and valuable, there will likely be a solid motivational foundation to determine how best to work with each other. This is especially true if the parties’ roles at the company are somewhat interdependent. If one competent individual’s success affects the other’s success and vice versa, it should pay to resolve their interpersonal issues. Hence, the motivating factor of mutually perceived competence makes a successful resolution process more likely.

When Is Workplace Peacebuilding Least Likely to Work?

Perceived Incompetence: When at least one of the parties in conflict has little to no faith that the other can do his job well, there is little motivation for getting along. In this case, at least one of the parties likely cannot understand why the other has a job there or at least why he has that particular role. Consequently, the individual often presumes it will not be long until the other party is terminated (since he cannot do his job well) or he has little faith in the company (since he perceives the company to have placed an incompetent individual) in which case the individual figures he will not remain at the company very long either. To engage such an individual in a peacebuilding process, therefore, requires quite a convincing argument as to why resolution is beneficial. Otherwise, the individual will not be intrinsically motivated to participate. The company could mandate he resolves the issues, but this would be an extrinsic motivation which is not likely to create a sustainable, successful outcome. He will probably resolve only with resentment and reluctance which won’t likely foster any lasting, productive dynamic.

Personal Attacks: The other condition under which motivation to resolve and rebuild is typically low is when personal attacks have gone too far and trust has completely eroded for at least one of the parties. In this case, the party who felt attacked will not want to engage in the process because of the risk of personal ruin. Perhaps, for example, there was a Facebook post, an office rumor, an interjection into the individual’s personal life — some very personal attack perceived to have taken place. Interaction then becomes too dangerous for the offended. Once this occurs, a peacebuilding process is very difficult. The risk of further exposure to personal attacks is too great for many workers to deem worthy, no matter how much they want to keep their jobs. They figure they would rather leave than work closely or work at all with the other individual. Often there is no way to work around this, and it ultimately ends in one of the parties being terminated or resigning. This is the most unfortunate circumstance because it turns out the conflict resolution specialist was brought in too late in the conflict. Sometimes the only chance at reconciliation is a process of restorative justice; in that process, the offending party would have to adamantly agree he or she was malicious and in need of forgiveness, which is unfortunately rarely suitable for workplace relationships due to the offender’s fear of career consequences. This is indeed a tricky situation.

While these conditions present a difficult prospect for successful workplace conflict resolution, it isn’t to say that peacebuilding can never work in these cases, only that it is more difficult and unlikely to be truly effective. So, if you as a manager or boss see the value in both employees and believe it is worth the risk of trying to rebuild the relationship, it is probably worth an attempt at peacebuilding. Typically, the risk of conflict resolution process not working is less risky and costly than not attempting anything and simply terminating an employee or letting one resign, as that can lead to a host of costly problems for the company. If a peacebuilding effort is attempted but ends up unsuccessful, at least you are able to document that you have tried everything you could prior to termination or resignation.

If you need help with workplace conflict resolution, relationship.mediation, or any peacebuilding effort at work, contact Pollack Peacebuilding. We’re passionate about helping organizations of all types resolve internal interpersonal challenges.


Jeremy Pollack

Jeremy Pollack is an anthropologist and conflict resolution consultant in Silicon Valley, but regularly travels between my San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles offices. He focuses on the psychology, social dynamics, and peacebuilding methodologies of interpersonal and intergroup conflicts. MORE >

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