Strike, Stanisław Lentz, 1910, Warsaw Museum (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #284

Three Strategies for Resolving Workplace Conflict

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Key Concept

Almost all organizations experience conflict at some point or another, and by acknowledging its inevitability, managers can focus on constructive strategies to deal with it. In this Idea, three ‘systems’ are presented that can be used alone or in combination for effective conflict management.

Idea Summary

January 2008 to April 2011 was a shocking time for France Telecom, when more than 60 employees committed suicide — a large number leaving behind notes blaming stress and misery at work. Though initially labelled isolated incidents, the company eventually took note of the increasing problem and initiated measures ranging from suggestion boxes to opening legal inquiries to formally investigate employee complaints. Though these are common measures when it comes to handling conflicts in organizations, ideally conflict management strategies must address the underlying policies and processes causing the conflict in the first place.

In this regard, Kirstie McAllum outlines three systems in an article published in IESE Insight that organizations can use to deal with conflict:

  • Law-based strategies: these work best when addressing two-sided conflicts about concerns that have clearly defined parameters. But in order to be truly effective, they must address clear violations, the adjudicators need to be perceived as neutral, and the procedure must be seen to be fair.
  • Management-based systems: these treat conflict as a natural, albeit avoidable, phenomenon. The aim here is to address conflict close to the source, encourage groups to define the terms of their interactions, and adapt to changing conditions.
  • Participation-based systems: this recognizes that there are multiple ways for an organization to achieve its goals and to manage conflict at different levels. The focus is on relationships and a collaborative organizational culture, with internal and external stakeholders involved.

Though the France Telecom case was quite extreme, every organization will nevertheless experience conflict at some point or another; if handled well, says McAllum, it can be a positive thing, increasing employees’ sense of participation in the organization, instead of becoming a source of destruction.

Business Application

Each conflict management system has its own strengths and weaknesses, and deciding which to apply will depend on both the nature of the conflict and the organizational systems and environment within which it is embedded.

According to McAllum, there is no one-size-fits-all approach as what might work for one company could be counterproductive for another. Each system also has a different aim; for example, law-based conflict management aims to decrease costs and avoid litigation, and can be rigid in nature, whereas participation-based aims to improve relationships and is therefore more flexible.

Similarly, each system has its shortcomings that managers should be aware of; for example, management-based conflict strategies can be prone to abuse by not translating them into action. Take the case of France Telecom highlighted above: out of more than 90,000 suggestions received in their suggestion boxes, only 7,600 were acted upon (i.e. little over 8%). Even then, the actions taken were product-related rather than employee-related.

As such, organizations should select an appropriate framework by combining elements from the various approaches, mindful of the impact each will have on the system as a whole. Ultimately, however, regardless of which approach or combination of approaches is chosen, managers must remember that perceived fairness in the conflict resolution process tends to increase employees’ evaluation of workplace justice. Giving employees’ needs, concerns and perspectives serious consideration during the conflict process is therefore essential.

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Idea conceived

  • September 2013

Idea posted

  • December 2013

DOI number



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