Conflict Management

What is on this page?

  1. What do organisations use conflict management for?
  2. Important things to know about "conflict" and "conflict management"

- The differences between "competition" and "conflict"
- Common causes of conflict
- Conflict between individuals
- Conflict between groups of people
- Conflict within a group of people

  1. How to identify signs and stages of conflict

- "Disputes of right" and "disputes of interest"
- Stages of conflict
- Signs of conflict between individuals
- Signs of conflict between groups of people

  1. How to build teamwork and co-operation (…and so minimise the possibility of conflict)
  2. How to manage and resolve conflict situations

- Collective bargaining
- Conciliation
- The difference between mediation, arbitration and negotiation
- How to be an effective mediator
- How to run a mediation process

  1. Outline for a Mediation Practice Session

- Introduction
- Opening of mediation
- Statement of positions
- Finding commonground
- Reassessing positions
- Reaching agreement
- Closure of mediation
- Assessment

  1. Mediation Guideline: Code of Conduct for Participants
  1. What do organisations use conflict management for?

For any organisation to be effective and efficient in achieving its goals, the people in the organisation need to have a shared vision of what they are striving to achieve, as well as clear objectives for each team / department and individual. You also need ways of recognising and resolving conflict amongst people, so that conflict does not become so serious that co-operation is impossible. All members of any organisation need to have ways of keeping conflict to a minimum - and of solving problems caused by conflict, before conflict becomes a major obstacle to your work. This could happen to any organisation, whether it is an NGO, a CBO, a political party, a business or a government.

Conflict management is the process of planning to avoid conflict where possible and organising to resolve conflict where it does happen, as rapidly and smoothly as possible.

  1. Important things to know about "conflict" and "conflict management":

The differences between "competition" and "conflict"

"Competition" usually brings out the best in people, as they strive to be top in their field, whether in sport, community affairs, politics or work. In fact, fair and friendly competition often leads to new sporting achievements, scientific inventions or outstanding effort in solving a community problem. When competition becomes unfriendly or bitter, though, conflict can begin - and this can bring out the worst in people.

Common causes of conflict

Causes or sources of organisational conflict can be many and varied. The most common causes are the following:

  • scarcity of resources (finance, equipment, facilities, etc)
  • different attitudes, values or perceptions
  • disagreements about needs, goals, priorities and interests
  • poor communication
  • poor or inadequate organisational structure
  • lack of teamwork
  • lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities

Conflict between individual

People have differing styles of communication, ambitions, political or religious views and different cultural backgrounds. In our diverse society, the possibility of these differences leading to conflict between individuals is always there, and we must be alert to preventing and resolving situations where conflict arises.

Conflict between groups of people

Whenever people form groups, they tend to emphasise the things that make their group "better than" or "different from" other groups. This happens in the fields of sport, culture, religion and the workplace and can sometimes change from healthy competition to destructive conflict.

Conflict within a group of people

Even within one organisation or team, conflict can arise from the individual differences or ambitions mentioned earlier; or from rivalry between sub-groups or factions. All leaders and members of the organisation need to be alert to group dynamics that can spill over into conflict.

  1. How to identify signs and stages of conflict

"Disputes of right" and "disputes of interest"

Especially in the workplace, two main types of disputes have been noted (although these two types may also happen in other situations). These are:

  • "disputes of right", where people or groups are entitled by law, by contract, by previous agreement or by established practice to certain rights. Disputes of right will focus on conflict issues such as employment contracts, legally enforceable matters or unilateral changes in accepted or customary practices. A dispute of rights is, therefore, usually settled by legal decision or arbitration and not by negotiation.
  • "disputes of interest", where the conflict may be a matter of opinion, such as where a person or group is entitled to some resources or privileges (such as access to property, better working conditions, etc). Because there is no established law or right, a dispute of interest will usually be solved through collective bargaining or negotiation.

Stages of conflict

The handling of conflict requires awareness of its various developmental stages. If leaders in the situation can identify the conflict issue and how far it has developed, they can sometimes solve it before it becomes much more serious. Typical stages include:

  • where potential for conflict exists - in other words where people recognise that lack of resources, diversity of language or culture may possible result in conflict if people are not sensitive to the diversity.
  • latent conflict where a competitive situation could easily spill over into conflict - e.g. at a political rally or in the workplace where there are obvious differences between groups of people.
  • open conflict - which can be triggered by an incident and suddenly become real conflict.
  • aftermath conflict - the situation where a particular problem may have been resolved but the potential for conflict still exists. In fact the potential may be even greater than before, if one person or group perceives itself as being involved in a win-loose situation.

Signs of conflict between individuals

In the organisation leaders and members should be alert to signs of conflict between colleagues, so that they can be proactive in reducing or resolving the conflict by getting to the root of the issue. Typical signs may include:

  • colleagues not speaking to each other or ignoring each other
  • contradicting and bad-mouthing one another
  • deliberately undermining or not co-operating with each other, to the downfall of the team

Signs of conflict between groups of people

Similarly, leaders and members can identify latent conflict between groups of people in the organisation or the community and plan action before the conflict becomes open and destructive:

  • cliques or factions meeting to discuss issues separately, when they affect the whole organisation
  • one group being left out of organising an event which should include everybody
  • groups using threatening slogans or symbols to show that their group is right and the others are wrong
  1. How to build teamwork and co-operation (…and so minimise the possibility of conflict)

Teamwork and co-operation are essential in an organisation which aims to be effective and efficient, and not likely to be divided by conflicting factions. The best teamwork usually comes from having a shared vision or goal, so that leaders and members are all committed to the same objectives and understand their roles in achieving those objectives. Important behaviours in achieving teamwork and minimising potential conflict include a commitment by team members to:

  • share information by keeping people in the group up-to-date with current issues
  • express positive expectations about each other
  • empower each other - publicly crediting colleagues who have performed well and encouraging each other to achieve results
  • team-build - by promoting good morale and protecting the group's reputation with outsiders
  • resolve potential conflict - by bringing differences of opinion into the open and facilitating resolution of conflicts
  1. How to manage and resolve conflict situations

Collective bargaining

Especially in workplace situations, it is necessary to have agreed mechanisms in place for groups of people who may be antagonistic (e.g. management and workers) to collectively discuss and resolve issues. This process is often called "collective bargaining", because representatives of each group come together with a mandate to work out a solution collectively. Experience has shown that this is far better than avoidance or withdrawal, and puts democratic processes in place to achieve "integrative problem solving", where people or groups who must find ways of co-operating in the same organisation, do so within their own agreed rules and procedures.


The dictionary defines conciliation as "the act of procuring good will or inducing a friendly feeling". South African labour relations legislation provides for the process of conciliation in the workplace, whereby groups who are in conflict and who have failed to reach agreement, can come together once again to attempt to settle their differences. This is usually attempted before the more serious step of a strike by workers or a lock-out by management is taken; and it has been found useful to involve a facilitator in the conciliation process. Similarly, any other organisation (e.g. sports club, youth group or community organisation) could try conciliation as a first step.

The difference between negotiation, mediation, and arbitration

Three methods of resolving situations that have reached the stage of open conflict are often used by many different organisations. It is important to understand these methods, so that people can decide which methods will work best for them in their specific conflict situation:

  • Negotiation: this is the process where mandated representatives of groups in a conflict situation meet together in order to resolve their differences and to reach agreement. It is a deliberate process, conducted by representatives of groups, designed to reconcile differences and to reach agreements by consensus. The outcome is often dependent on the power relationship between the groups. Negotiations often involve compromise - one group may win one of their demands and give in on another. In workplaces Unions and management representative usually sue negotiations to solve conflicts. Political and community groups also often use this method.
  • Mediation: when negotiations fail or get stuck, parties often call in and independent mediator. This person or group will try to facilitate settlement of the conflict. The mediator plays an active part in the process, advises both or all groups, acts as intermediary and suggests possible solutions. In contrast to arbitration (see below) mediators act only in an advisory capacity - they have no decision-making powers and cannot impose a settlement on the conflicting parties. Skilled mediators are able to gain trust and confidence from the conflicting groups or individuals.
  • Arbitration: means the appointment of an independent person to act as an adjudicator (or judge) in a dispute, to decide on the terms of a settlement. Both parties in a conflict have to agree about who the arbitrator should be, and that the decision of the arbitrator will be binding on them all. Arbitration differs from mediation and negotiation in that it does not promote the continuation of collective bargaining: the arbitrator listens to and investigates the demands and counter-demands and takes over the role of decision-maker. People or organisations can agree on having either a single arbitrator or a panel of arbitrators whom they respect and whose decision they will accept as final, in order to resolve the conflict.

How to be an effective mediator

An effective mediator needs certain skills in order to achieve credibility and results:

  • preferably a proven record of success in mediation or negotiation
  • the ability to gain the trust, acceptance and co-operation of conflicting parties
  • clear thinking in identifying the real problems and offering practical solutions
  • knowledgeable about the organisational structures, strategies and attitudes of the conflicting parties; as well as any relevant laws or agreements
  • tactful and diplomatic with the necessary powers of persuasion and strong character to nudge the participants progressively towards an agreement.

How to run a mediation process

The mediation process can be broadly divided into the following three stages:

Stage 1: Introduction and establishment of credibility

During the first stage, the mediator plays a passive role. The main task is to gain the trust and acceptance of the conflicting parties, so that they begin to believe that he/she will be capable of assisting them fairly as a person on whom they can rely at all times. An experienced mediator will leave most of the talking to the disputing parties, but will listen attentively and ask probing questions to pinpoint the causes of the dispute, obstacles to a possible settlement and to identify the issues in order of priority. Once credibility is achieved and sufficient background knowledge gained, the mediator may begin to persuade the parties to resume negotiations, possibly with a fresh perspective.

Stage 2: Steering the negotiation process

In the second stage, the mediator intervenes more actively in steering the negotiations. He/she may offer advice to the parties, attempt to establish the actual resistance point of each party and to discover areas in which compromises could be reached. The mediator will encourage parties to put forward proposals and counter-proposals and (when a solution appears feasible) will begin to urge or even pressurise the participants towards acceptance of a settlement.

Stage 3: Movement towards a final settlement

An experienced mediator will know when to use diplomacy and when to exert pressure towards final settlement of the dispute. Timing and sensitivity to personalities and strategic positions is important to maintain credibility and avoid rejection by one or more parties in the process. He/she might use bi-lateral discussions with individuals or groups and during the final stages may actually suggest or draft proposals for consideration. In the event of a final settlement being reached, the mediator usually assists the parties in the drafting of their agreement, ensuring that both sides are satisfied with the wording, terms and conditions of the agreement.

The process of mediation is dynamic and finely-tuned. A good mediator has to be flexible and inventive, must ensure that his/her personal values are not imposed on the conflicting parties. At most a mediator can advise, persuade or cajole them towards agreement.

  1. Outline for a Mediation Session

This is a session of at least 2 ½ hours. It is a suggested structure for a formal mediation session around a conflict between two organisations, parties or groups. You should be flexible when you structure a mediation session, e.g. a more informal mediation, say between two neighbours, will need a different approach.

In this session, remember that you may want to be flexible with time, for example to allow for translation, to allow each side time to caucus (speak among themselves) or to give the mediator time to meet both sides separately.

It is always a good idea to structure a break in the mediation for people to have tea and get some fresh air. So, to allow for things like breaks, extra caucussing and translation, you should try to set aside about 4 hours for the mediation session.

1.Opening of Mediation:
Agreeing to the rules and procedures
15 mins
2.Statement of Positions:
Each side presents their position (their point of view)
Summarise these positions from the chair
Allow clarifying questions
Allow responses
30 mins
3.Finding Common ground:
What is each side prepared to do - ask for practical suggestions, possible solutions, etc
Take responses to these suggestions
Summarise commonground and add alternative solutions from the chair
(Note: if there is very little common ground at this point, this might be a good time to speak to both sides separately)
30 mins
4.Reassessing Positions:
Give both sides an opportunity to caucus on how they feel about suggested solutions
10 mins
5.Reaching Agreement:
Ask each side to briefly restate their position and say what they fell about the possible solutions
Review the common ground and summarise any points of agreement from the chair
Encourage agreement on the remaining points
Record and read back whatever agreement is reached
30 mins
6.Closure of Mediation:
Facilitate discussion on the way forward, including the enforcement, monitoring and publicising of the agreement, and the need for future meetings
Thank you's
15 mins
  1. Mediation Guideline: Code of Conduct for Participants

During mediation you need some rules on how each side should behave, especially if there are a lot of people involved in the mediation.

This is a checklist of rules and procedures which you can get each side to agree on before you start to run a mediation session. To save time, you can get the sides to agree on some of these issues before you start the formal medication sessions.

  • Trust and respect for chairperson (i.e. the mediator) and the mediating team (if more that one person)
  • Should there be translation and who should do it?
  • Is the venue secure and neutral?
  • Do the chairs and tables have to be re-arranged?
  • Size and leadership of delegations.
  • Should observers be allowed?
  • Agreeing to behave in a polite and disciplined way.
  • No blaming, verbal abuse or shouting.
  • No physical intimidation (e.g. pointing) and violence.
  • No presence and carrying of weapons.
  • Should smoking, drinking and eating be allowed?
  • No other distracting behaviour, e.g. caucussing while the other side is speaking.
  • How long should sessions be?
  • Equal time for each side to speak and who should speak first.
  • Opportunity to caucus and consult when necessary.
  • How should the mediation be minuted?
  • What parts of the discussion should be confidential?
  • How should the agreement be reported back to members?
  • Should the outcome of the mediation be publicised and how?