Want to know how the Harvard Program on Negotiation recommends managing conflict at work?

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Conflict at work is inevitable. Conflict can be positive, collaborative, intellectually challenging, and improve productivity, employee satisfaction, and customer appreciation. However, conflict can be negative, frustrating, enhance anger, decrease morale, and harm the very things you are trying to accomplish. Looking at conflict analysis and resolution a little deeper, what does the Harvard Program on Negotiation recommend? They recommend three strategies.  These are to put a formal system in place, promote better feedback, and focus on the problem and not the people. As an experienced manager with over 25 years of experience I want to look at these three areas and offer you some ideas that may help you beyond this article.


Put formal systems in place


Many organizations have a formal system in place to address conflicts at work. The work in this area is referred to as dispute system design. Typically,

a process is in place with individuals trained in mediation

that work with the parties to allow them to come to a decision that both can live with as a minimum and could be a real win-win as a best case scenario. The employees know that they are making the decision rather than having the decision imposed on them. This process requires employees to be trained in mediation techniques and experience as a mediator in various scenarios.

If mediation is not applicable, then arbitration where someone else other than the parties makes the decision may be applicable.

The organization may tap an immediate supervisor, a third party from within the organization, a third party from another part of the organization, someone who specializes in dispute resolution in HR, or someone that both parties agree would be a good third party who could look at the situation impartially. If the system is set up it tends to become more efficient based on the experiences of the mediators and arbitrators.

Having been involved in this personally with an organization of 1,200 employees it took a couple of months to set up the system, train mediators, work with new mediators, and apply mediation to address approximately 300 unfair labor practices, union grievances, and equal employment opportunity complaints. It took approximately three months to initially work through these resulting in agreements in 90% of the cases with about 30 cases that were going to require an alternative approach to mediation.


Promote better feedback


Communication is key. Many of the conflicts were a result of poor communication. If the brain does not know, the typical response is to not trust and be cautious as a minimum, and to view the issue negatively resulting in flight, fight, freeze, or appease. With better communication focusing on being truthful and operating with honesty and integrity, this is a good first step. Being as open as possible with what can be shared legally, morally, and ethically enlightens others as to why decisions are being made. Accepting others by withholding judgment and avoiding blame by focusing on what we can do together going forward can take a negative situation and turn it into a positive opportunity. Being responsible by taking actions by under promising and over delivering promotes trust setting up positive expectations for the future.

All too often feedback focuses on what went wrong and often involves blame. Rather than feedback consider feedforward. That is,

considering what has happened, what have we learned and what can we do together going forward?

The key words are “we” and “forward.” Rather than what are you going to do going forward with the stigma associated with the event, when we look at it together what can I do to help you and what can we do to have a better outcome in the future is received much better. By taking the current status and looking forward to the future, this helps both parties move from the past and to focus on what could be done positively with a look towards the future. The feedforward should be on point, constructive, specific, and encouraging. Avoid blame and unconstructive commentary.


Focus on the problem, and not the people


Rephrasing this from the commentary presented in the article to my personal perspective I might offer “be tough on the problem and gentle on the people.” What does that mean? Far more often conflicts in the work place stem from systemic issues rather than someone personally. With that in mind look at the system from the beginning and work through the system to determine why the error was made given the current system in place. Too much competition rather than healthy competition and collaboration can result in negative results.

Perceptions matter. Listen actively to understand. What else should I be asking?

Listen actively by paraphrasing, asking open ended questions, summarizing, and empathizing with the parties. Be careful not to blame others or yourself.

Rather than focusing on who was right and who was wrong, focus on figuring out what happened and what can be done to avoid this situation in the future? Look at the problem jointly and from other perspectives than your own. You may be surprised at what you might learn.

Every position has at least one interest and interests are the seeds to a solution.

Explore interests to understand where others are coming from. By keeping an open mind and exploring interests it may be possible to work together to find a better solution for the future. This will also build trust before something becomes a crisis. When a crisis comes this will serve you well, because others can see you will be tough on the problem, remain calm, confident, and competent as you lead your team through the crisis. Working together, listening to everyone, and exploring interests are the keys to conflict resolution and coming out ahead.




If possible, develop a formal system starting with trained mediators and mediation. Promote working together collaboratively by using feed forward with what “we” are going to do “going forward” with an emphasis on the future. Finally, be tough on the problem and gentle on the people. Listen actively. Ensure everyone is heard. Take actions to address the problem as a team especially with newer employees that do not know you well so when you have to react and you can’t necessarily carry out 

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]