Effectively Managing Conflict in Your Workplace

War Zone or Idea Zone?

The High Price of Conflict

We’ve all seen it happen. Suddenly the team that functioned so harmoniously is operating more like a dysfunctional family. The office’s usual cheerful buzz has been replaced by a dark silence. People seem to do nothing but complain. Some won’t even speak to one another.

As a result, progress has slowed. Projects may even have stalled.

Once your workplace was like Cheers, where everybody likes to go and everybody knows your name. Now, thanks to employee squabbles, it’s more like Arrested Development.

If your workplace has come down with a case of employee conflict, you are not alone. A study by the Society of Human Resource Management found that HR managers spend up to 60 percent of their time dealing with employee disputes.

These disputes can begin with policy disagreements, misunderstandings about responsibilities, or clashes of personality or work style. But without proper management, simple workplace disagreements can escalate into full-blown battles.

The results can be disastrous, causing a loss in productivity, lowered morale, turnover and attrition. Employee disputes can even lead to costly legal action–or can negatively affect your company’s reputation.

We would all like to be able to resolve office disputes like Judge Judy, clearing the air with wise pronouncements and leaving once-squabbling employees wondering why they disagreed in the first place. But the truth is that managers are humans too, and the toxic environment created by employee conflict may cause supervisors to feel anxious, angry or fearful. Managers may react in one of the following ways:

  • Denial: “If I ignore it long enough, the problem will go away.”
  • Reacting emotionally, with aggression, anger or fearfulness
  • Finger-pointing
  • Passing the buck: delegating so as to make it someone else’s problem

The problem is, all of these responses will only make matters worse.

You CAN manage conflict

The good news is that conflict is normal–and if you feel uncomfortable or anxious about dealing with conflict, that’s normal too. But with the right approach, you can defuse employee conflict and rid your workplace of the toxic environment it creates. In the process, your employees will learn to manage their own conflicts–and head off future battles. And you’ll all get to know each other better–potentially leading to renewed energy and creativity in the workplace.
It’s important to know that effectively managing conflict is not a talent, it’s a skill. And it’s one you can learn–and, in turn, teach to employees.

Four Steps for Managing Conflict:

1) Get everyone together. Begin by assembling all antagonists. Don’t meet with people individually; this is something you must solve together. Give each a few minutes to present his perspective and opinion. Nobody is allowed to interrupt, and everyone gets equal time.
Use active listening. This key conflict resolution skill, which requires that you listen carefully and then restate what you have heard, demonstrates that you appreciate the other’s point of view. Your response has two steps: name the feeling the person is expressing, and then state the reason he feels that way. “It sounds like you’re annoyed by Jim’s lateness.”

2) Set the Rules of Engagement. Begin by letting all parties involved know you will not take sides and are committed to ensuring resolution. Express your confidence in their abilities. Then set the following ground rules for discussion. You may need to return to these rules and reinforce them during the meeting.

  • De-escalate. To keep the discussion from turning into an argument, tell participants they must stick with “I” statements and avoid “you” statements.
  • Focus on work behaviors; avoid personal attacks.
  • Be specific and avoid sweeping generalities.
  • Use a civil tone; you must model this by softening your tone as well.
  • Make sure body language is civil (no crossed arms or eye rolling).
  • Take a time out if needed to cool down.

3) Make changes. Finish the session by committing to concrete changes. Is there some point on which everyone agrees? Use this as a starting point. If there is no area of agreement, focus on a common long-term goal and begin from there. Come away from the discussion with concrete steps each participant will take toward resolving the conflict.

4) Review progress. Once commitments are made, set a time to review progress. Hold participants–and yourself–accountable for living up to commitments. And don’t forget to congratulate employees on progress. Even if things aren’t yet perfect, improvement should be acknowledged.

The Payoff for Well-Managed Conflict

Workplace conflict resolution is hard, and isn’t accomplished in a day. But over time, it will yield significant benefits.

  • Improved working relationships. When disagreements are resolved in a controlled and civil manner, employees’ respect for one another grows.
  • Catalyst for creativity. Conflict provides a work group with opportunities to learn, grow and develop new solutions. This is a skill that can lead to innovation in other areas.
  • Fewer headaches. Managers who deal with conflict successfully experience fewer employee complaints than managers who fail to do so.
  • Time and money savings. Informal complaint resolution reduces administrative processing and eliminates legal fees.
  • Less turnover. When employees know they can address and resolve workplace conflict, they are less likely to leave.

The Domino Effect

Successfully managing conflict has a positive domino effect, allowing managers to create a workplace where employees thrive:

  • Even when disagreements occur, civility and respect shown during conflict resolution will foster a sense of peace and goodwill in an otherwise stressful workplace.
  • A well-balanced and harmonious work environment allows employees to focus more on their jobs.
  • Improved focus leads to higher quality work–a real incentive for all organizations to effectively manage workplace conflict.

Addressing workplace conflict may sound scary and hard. And it is. But it’s critical for the success of your company–and as a manager, you’ll reap benefits many times the effort you invest.

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