Managing Conflict in the Workplace

In any environment where people spend time together, a certain amount of conflict is inevitable. Workplaces are no exception. However, in an office or other workplace, disagreements and personality conflicts can have a harmful effect on morale and productivity. What are the best actions and policies business owners and managers can take to manage and minimize conflict?

What Causes Workplace Conflict?

While conflicts can and do occur everywhere, there are certain reasons that often bring about workplace conflict.

  • Disagreements about how work should be done. Members of a team may have different ideas about how a project should be completed. 
  • Conflicts over power and authority. People within a certain department or across different departments may get into power struggles. 
  • Stressful situations. When a project deadline is looming, tensions can arise. If the business is experiencing difficult times, it can create a competitive atmosphere. Stress often leads to tempers flaring. 
  • Personality conflicts. Sometimes people simply don't like each other. When they are forced to work together, conflicts can occur. 

Whatever the cause, it's important to notice and respond to workplace conflicts before they become disruptive issues. 

Business team solving a problem in the office


Best Ways to Prevent and Manage Workplace Conflicts

The following are some tips to keep conflict around the workplace to a minimum.

Maintain a Balance Between Cooperation and Competition

The traditional view is that competition between individuals or teams is healthy and motivates everyone to do their best. However, a company culture that is fiercely competitive can lead to a stressful workplace where conflicts arise. 

Harvard Business Review explains that there are both pros and cons to competition. On the one hand, friendly competition can motivate people to do their best. Harvard Business Review quotes studies that suggest the difference comes down to how competition is framed and how it makes employees feel. When encouraging competition, it's important to emphasize positive outcomes and the maintaining of ethical standards. Studies found, for example, that harsh criticism of "losers" of internal competitions tends to cause a negative atmosphere. 

Rather than encourage competition, you may instead want to build a company culture built on cooperation. You can instil a competitive spirit in employees by focusing on outperforming your external competitors. That way, the competitive spirit is channelled outward rather than against fellow employees. 

Pay Attention to Warning Signs

The worst way to respond to workplace conflict is to ignore it. Minor disagreements can turn into major conflicts if they aren't addressed. Pay attention to early warning signs and you can intervene and prevent them from turning into more serious, ongoing issues. Early signs of impending conflict may include frequent arguments or bickering between employees. Hostile behaviour may be cloaked in humour, as in sarcastic remarks directed to or about others. 

Managers should be proactive about talking to employees who are involved in disputes. It's important to discuss these matters and listen to the parties involved without reacting in a judgmental manner. Rather than identifying one party as right and the other as wrong, look for a compromise. 

Let Everyone's Voice Be Heard

It's natural for people to get frustrated when they feel that they aren't heard or taken seriously. This can cause resentment to build up and make someone less inclined to cooperate. Listening to everyone, whether at meetings or face-to-face discussions goes a long way toward preventing or defusing anger. It's equally important to respond to concerns and complaints in a respectful manner. Even if you can't always please everybody, you can at least listen and take the time to explain your position. 

Make Sure Roles Are Clear

We listed power struggles as a potential cause of conflict. This type of issue is especially likely when the hierarchy is not clear. If a team is put together to work on a certain project, make sure it's clear who the leader is and who they need to report to. If there are frequent squabbles between departments, set up rules to govern who has authority in which situation. This won't necessarily prevent all power struggles, but it can help to reduce problems that stem from confusion. 

Avoid Favouritism and Cronyism

If there's a perception of favouritism towards certain individuals or teams, this can create a divided workplace where certain people don't feel their voices are heard. Even if this is done unwittingly, it can create a tense atmosphere.  Financial Times points out how cronyism can contribute to a toxic workplace environment. If people are divided into cliques and constantly vying for rank, the stage is set for frequent conflicts. To avoid this, it's imperative to avoid even the appearance of favouring certain people or groups over others. 

Set a Good Example

Those in leadership positions must set the right example if they want to manage and prevent workplace conflict. Managers should be aware of how they conduct themselves and deal with conflict. Behaviour and attitudes in an organisation typically trickle down. If managers are highly critical and hostile towards employees whenever something goes wrong, this is most likely going to be reflected throughout the company.  Senior management should practice positive reinforcement and avoid personal criticism. If someone makes a mistake, focus on how they can improve in the future rather than blaming them. 

Use a Professional Mediator

Some conflicts don't have a simple solution. If there's a situation that you can't solve on your own, it can be helpful to use a more formal mediation process. Mediators are trained professionals who can listen to both or multiple sides of a conflict and often come up with a workable compromise. A mediator can be objective, as he or she isn't involved in the situation. 

Successful business people handshaking closing a deal

Everyday Guidelines to Avoid Conflict

The following are some tips to keep in mind that will help to minimize workplace conflict. 

  • Don't take disagreements or criticism regarding work matters personally.
  • Avoid gossip. Workplace gossip is almost always harmful and is, at best, a waste of time.
  • Strive to be empathetic. Everyone has a unique point of view as well as their own particular challenges. Before you react to something someone has said or done, try to see it from their point of view.

Manage Conflict in Your Workplace 

While no one wants to work in a tense or hostile environment, a certain amount of conflict is unavoidable. Whenever two or more people are involved in something, there will be disagreements. The question is whether people can work out their differences amicably or if they degenerate into long-term hostilities. Managers can help to reduce conflict and prevent it from getting out of control if they stay alert, encourage a positive company culture, and practice what they preach. 

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Tim Hatari

Tim Hatari helps businesses improve performance, creating strategic development plans and establishing structure via the 5PX Executive Business Coaching System. As CEO and Founder at TMD Coaching, he oversees the vision setting process with clients, leading on sales acquisition, the drive for operational excellence and market leading innovation. For Tim, helping others is the most rewarding part of the role. Follow or connect with Tim on Linkedin - www.linkedin.com/in/timhatari

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Topics from this blog: HR, People

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