6 steps toward successfully resolving conflict in the workplace

Kierstin Kennedy, M.D. (Steve Wood)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.  – Conflict in the workplace can be unavoidable at times, but how conflict is managed is up to the individual and leadership, according to University of Alabama at Birmingham Chief Medical Officer Kierstin Kennedy, M.D. 

In a recent publication in the Journal of Hospital Medicine, Kennedy and her colleagues detail six steps leaders and employees can utilize to work toward successful conflict resolution. 

Check your vitals 

Kennedy says that, when conflict arises, people tend to frame the interaction as a battle of opposing viewpoints. 

“This can lead to an emotionally charged state or ‘fight or flight’ mode in which the amygdala is activated, creating an inherently defensive position,” Kennedy said. 

She says the first step to successful conflict management is to understand and process emotions so that they do not become a barrier to successful collaboration. In addition, she says it is also important to assess the emotional state of your counterpart.  

Understand the issue 

Kennedy says high emotion can inhibit critical thinking and make it difficult to gain clarity on the issue.  

“In a calm state, you’re well-poised to identify the unmet need that may be driving the conflict,” Kennedy said. “This sharpened perspective allows for focus on what is at stake for both sides, what both parties stand to gain, and perhaps how an institution’s shared mission and vision can illuminate a path forward.” 

Be vulnerable 

“Entering a high-stakes conversation with humility and vulnerability can disarm the other party and decrease defensiveness,” Kennedy said. “One approach is to admit what you do not know and ask the other person to share their perspective.” 

She adds that seeing an issue from the other party’s point of view can set the foundation for a productive discussion and increase collaboration as well as emotional connection. 

“Vulnerability provides space for your counterpart to be heard, conveying humanity, and is a prime factor in building trust in relationships,” she said. the potential to negatively impact work performance,” Kennedy said. 

Create alignment 

“Use your understanding to create alignment,” Kennedy said. “This step is critical because it advances the goal of moving both parties from defensiveness to collaboration.” 

She adds that mission alignment fosters more collaboration and creates an enhanced environment for problem-solving, moving from attempting to best the other party to collectively besting the issue. This collaboration is where both parties have the potential for positive rewards.  

Define the new path forward 

Kennedy says alignment with a shared goal to solve a problem invites collaboration toward a new path forward. 

“You can collectively brainstorm on how to resolve the issue at hand and prevent a recurrence, which may involve process changes or increased awareness of shared commitments,” she said. 

In addition, defining a new path also provides the opportunity to co-create a working relationship and agree on the problem-solving approach in the future. 

Have an exit strategy 

Conflict can be extremely complex, and it is not uncommon for the conversation to start positively and end with a negative result. 

Kennedy says, when this happens, it is important to have an exit strategy. 

“Walk back through your initial steps,” she said. “If this proves unsuccessful and collaboration becomes unattainable, it is better to exit the conversation. However, there should always be a clear plan to resume the discussion later. Unresolved conflict has the potential to negatively impact work performance.”