How to Address Conflict in the Workplace
It doesn’t matter if you work in the most tranquil of places. If birds sing from the cherry blossoms and a bubbling brook flows nearby. There is always going to be conflict in the workplace.
Conflict can arise from the simplest of things, like employees feeling they are working harder than their co-workers, or not being acknowledged for their achievements. Sometimes it’s inevitable. But there are ways to make the entire process easier. Here are our top tips for successfully managing conflict in the workplace.
Don’t avoid it
This really is the best place to start with any incidence of conflict. If you spend your time ducking behind plant pots or hiding in bathrooms because you don’t want to deal with it, it’s A.), time you moved out of that bad 90’s sitcom you’re living in, and B.), way past time you dealt with the problem. Avoiding conflict in the workplace not only leads to an unhealthy workplace, it also wastes time and energy you could be devoting to more meaningful things. Addressing conflict in the workplace (when necessary) is a sign of a good leader, and if you can handle situations like this with poise and respect, it stands you in good stead for a promotion. If you need to, go to someone who can give you advice on how to approach it, but don’t let it simmer for weeks unaddressed.
There’s no point trying to have a civilised discussion while “King Kong Karl” is hanging from the lighting fixtures screaming obscenities. Make sure every party is in a place of composure before beginning discussion. If you find yourself heating up, take a few deep breaths and remind yourself of the issue at hand – not your personal connection to it.
If you are involved in the conflict, don’t use barbed words or provocative language. State your case with impartiality. Not only will you be more respected, but people will listen to more of what you’re saying, because you are not on the attack. Use phrases like “I felt hurt because…” or “I went to the computer and rechecked my work…” showing both your feelings and the procedure you followed.
Conflicts can arise from people’s distress over not being heard. If you are listening to someone’s side in an argument only with the intention of retaliating, you are not truly empathising or understanding what they are saying.
Before conflict arises, be open to discussion. Let people air their problems or concerns so they feel comfortable in their workplace. Psychologists believe anger stems from the primary emotions of feeling hurt or scared. If this could be the case, try to understand the underlying cause for the disagreement. If someone feels ignored, the conflict resolution could be as easily resolved as taking the person aside and taking steps to address their concerns.
If there is a problem in the workplace, the worst thing that can happen is a case of “he said she said,” or allowing conflict resolution to be a way to wage personal vendettas. Make discussions of conflict be about the problem, not the person. You want to ask the right questions, like “can you explain this to me from the beginning?” and “you seem to be very well versed, do you think you could describe this process in a way I can understand?” This moves away from the defensive and towards understanding.
What’s more, you should look to the future. Good examples are “how can this be solved?” or “what would make this better?” Stories of people getting angry at work make good retelling at dinner parties, but they don’t make for the most comfortable work environment when Stacey isn’t talking to Zach because Zach overheard Molly saying to Steven that Rachel thinks Stacey should work harder and Zach didn’t tell her. It’s high school level drama, and makes for good gossip but bad working conditions.
Arrange a mediator if necessary
No matter if you are a supervisor, manager, or general employee, if there is a large scale conflict, both parties would benefit from having an impartial mediator ensuring that both sides of the story are heard and acknowledged. Sometimes it is hard to appreciate and listen to each side without the help of someone who does not have a stake in the outcome of the conflict. Full transparency, quick resolution, and fair judgement are all highly valued aspects in addressing conflict, and the easiest way to do that is to ensure an outcome that respects everyone’s opinions.
Ensure the process is structured
When a conflict in the workplace arises, everyone should have a clear idea of how things will proceed. There should be knowledge of where to direct complaints, how to resolve it without help, or how to go about attaining help. Written into onboarding information when employees start a new job should be clear information about unacceptable work practices and their consequences, as well as who should be informed in the case of conflict, or how to get help in conflict resolution.
Make clear that disagreements are not the end of a career, as businesses cannot progress without healthy disagreement. However amend that with disagreements that constitute entirely unacceptable and fireable offences, such as sexual harassment or racism, will not be tolerated. Additionally, extensive and constant conflict will not stand, and employees should know that finding ways to address problems calmly and peacefully will stand them in good stead at their place of work. Employees should know from the get go where they stand, both for job security, and also to prevent possible lawsuits.
Everyone’s going to fight at some point or another. It’s the sad but true nature of the human race. But rather than generalising to an entire population, celebrate when things go well. When a project was completed ahead of schedule, or two people figured things about without a screaming match next to the water cooler, it’s cause for a pat on the back and a “well done.” Sometimes just acknowledging an achievement can go a long way. Saying “I see what you’ve been doing and how well you’ve been working together and I think it’s fantastic” makes for a happier and more cohesive work life.