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How to handle workplace conflict

Written by: Elizabeth Walker
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Published on July 25, 2022.

Anyone that’s been in the workforce long enough will inevitably run into some form of conflict with a coworker, supervisor, or team. Within your organization, there can be a variety of ages, genders, religious backgrounds, races, and upbringings.

These differences can bring varied perspectives that are extremely valuable. However, sometimes a lack of shared experiences or different communication styles can cause potential conflicts and disagreements.

While conflict avoidance is often seen as the easy answer, there’s a better way. Handling workplace conflict correctly can encourage positive behaviors and significantly impact employee engagement and retention.In this article, we’ll explain six ways to handle workplace conflict and scenarios that will help create a better environment for you and your employees.

Learn how you can use fringe benefits to create a more positive and inclusive workplace

1. Have an open mind

When approaching or getting involved in a workplace conflict, it’s best to remain objective by separating yourself from the equation. It can be difficult to effectively mediate a situation when you choose one side over another before the conversation begins. As much as possible, keep an open mind to all opinions and avoid declaring a position.

In the workplace, employee conflict is inevitable. But you can minimize the negative impact that conflict has on you and your employees and reach a resolution more quickly if you keep an open mind, use active listening techniques, and try to find common ground.

Exploring our own beliefs and testing them helps us to understand not just our own views and thought processes, but the beliefs and thought processes of others.

2. Utilize an employee handbook

Your employees should have a clear outline of their job positions and daily duties. If any problems arise, they should know who to come to with any issues and what protocol to follow.

Therefore, you should set ground rules for your organization from day one of employment. This should include details such as effective communication methods and important discrimination policies.

Leaving little room for interpretation when it comes to acceptable workplace behaviors helps set the stage for how employees should expect to behave and how they can expect others to treat them.

Encouraging mutual respect through written policies is important in fostering a positive workplace culture. This can help avoid conflict situations from arising in the first place and assist with resolving them. Personal opinions can be put aside if the policies are consistently enforced.

3. Respect and welcome differences

Where there is conflict among coworkers, one thing is always true: both parties have personal biases about the situation. In most cases, it’s possible to respect the feelings of both parties while working toward a resolution.

One way to achieve this is to identify the concerns of both individuals. Respond to each problem and attempt to provide conflict resolution. If resolution or compromise can’t be reached by addressing individual concerns, the issue may be the result of unclear policies or expectations.

Showing people respect, regardless of their point of view, will go a long way in building an inclusive workplace culture where your employees feel comfortable expressing opinions or making suggestions. Remember, think of interactions in the workplace as a conversation, not an argument.

4. Catch the conflict early

Often, minor issues that could have been resolved early on grow into much larger and more destructive conflicts. Whether it’s a clash of personalities, office gossip, or a disagreement regarding the direction of a project, most of these issues can be prevented early.

If a problem arises between conflicting employees, make an effort to solve the conflict immediately before it grows into a bigger problem. Unresolved issues not only make the environment uncomfortable, but they can affect an employee’s work performance.

To catch interpersonal conflict early, you should foster an environment where your employees can feel safe to voice concerns, no matter how small. Support your employees and be that person to mitigate the situation.

5. Follow up to ensure continued conflict resolution

After reaching a resolution—and depending on the nature of the conflict—it may be helpful to follow up with all parties after a few days or weeks to ensure that things are continuing to work. These post-mediation discussions are also an opportunity to work through any problems that may have happened since the initial meeting.

If additional adjustments need to be made, they should be implemented quickly. Reiterate the plan and common goal behind resolving the conflict, and ensure that both parties fully understand their commitment to resolving the conflict.

6. Don’t allow inappropriate behaviors

While certain types of conflict can be beneficial, some behaviors shouldn’t be tolerated under any circumstances.

It’s your responsibility as an employer to ensure any of these situations are promptly dealt with to maintain safe and productive work environments. Many of which can have legal consequences for you and your organization.

Zero-tolerance behaviors include:

  • Workplace harassment
  • Racism
  • Discrimination
  • Theft
  • Violence
  • Threats

Your workplace should be a professional environment to avoid these types of difficult conversations from happening in the first place. Not only are there legal issues associated with allowing some of these behaviors in the workplace, employee satisfaction is dependent on having a safe place to work.

These general rules will help you with office conflict resolution. But sometimes problematic situations will inevitably arise. So let’s look at how these rules can be applied to specific workplace conflict situations.

Scenario 1: Communication differences

Andrew works for a respected engineering firm as an engineer. He’s beginning a new project with a new team. The team was briefly introduced and given some project details, but no common ground rules for communication were set.

Andrew texts one of his colleagues about the project late in the evening. His colleague is frustrated because it’s outside of work hours and could have waited until the following day, or been sent as an email.

The problem is that Andrew and his colleague are not on the same page on how to stay in contact about their shared project. There aren’t any clear rules about how to contact each other.

You can resolve this issue by setting a policy or expectations regarding communication, such as methods of communication, timeline, and escalation procedures for emergencies.

Though the issue could have been avoided by establishing these guidelines beforehand, the conflict pointed out an issue and resulted in a better process going forward.

Scenario 2: Unclear expectations

Aimee is in human resources at a small organization. The employee handbook states all employees are expected to work 40 hours a week, Monday through Friday. One employee consistently begins work at 9 a.m. every day. Another employee is less consistent, and starts at a different time each morning, sometimes at 9:00 and other days closer to 10:00.

They both work 40 hours, but it’s challenging to know when the second employee will be available. Aimee feels they are less reliable than the other employee because she doesn’t know when they’ll be available or working.

In this case, Aimee is having difficulty keeping track of her employee’s availability. The employee is meeting their hourly requirement but isn’t meeting Aimee’s other expectations.

There are a few different ways to apply the rules to this situation. First, having a written policy regarding when employees should report to work and the hours they are to be available would help to alleviate confusion for both you and your employees.

If you’re flexible about start times, setting expectations for when and how to communicate availability would also prevent confusion. In this situation, Aimee should keep an open mind and consider open communication and policy updates to help set expectations.

Conclusion

Though conflict can feel negative, it can also help you create and update policies to promote a safer and more productive workplace. When handled correctly, workplace conflicts can be resolved positively, reducing the chances for further tension.

The modern workforce comes with many different perspectives, but if you listen to your employees, create transparent guidelines, and have constructive conversations, you can help facilitate collaboration and increase employee satisfaction and retention at your company.

This article was originally published on January 26, 2015. It was last updated on July 25, 2022.

Originally published on July 25, 2022. Last updated July 25, 2022.
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