Workplace conflict isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about a healthy work culture. When handled correctly, however, workplace conflict can promote positive changes and the sharing of great ideas.
Anyone that’s been in the workforce long enough will inevitably run into some form of conflict with a coworker, supervisor, or team. Within just one organization there can be people of different ages, genders, political affiliations, religious backgrounds, races, and upbringings.
These differences can bring varied perspectives that are extremely valuable. Sometimes, though, lack of shared experiences or different communication styles can cause misunderstandings and disagreements. How employers handle these situations can have a significant impact on employee satisfaction and retention.
In this article we’ll cover ways to handle workplace conflict that create a better environment for both employees and employers.
Have an open mind
When approaching, or getting involved in a workplace conflict, it is 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 is practicable, keep an open mind to all opinions and avoid declaring a position.
Utilize an employee handbook
Set ground rules for your organization from day 1 of employment. This should include details such as which modes of communication are appropriate and when, to things as important as discrimination policies.
Leaving little room for interpretation when it comes to acceptable workplace behaviors helps to set the stage for how employees should expect to behave, but also how they can expect others to treat them. Encouraging mutual respect through written policies is an important step in fostering a healthy workplace culture. This can help avoid conflict from arising in the first place, but also assists with resolving it. As long as the policies are consistently enforced, personal opinions can be put aside.
When tension arises between coworkers, one thing is always true: both parties have personal biases about the situation. In most situations, 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 concern and attempt to provide resolution. If resolution or compromise can’t be reached by addressing individual concerns the issue may be the result of unclear policies or expectations.
Catch the conflict early
Many times, issues that could have been resolved early on grow into much larger conflicts. Whether it’s a clash of personalities, a lack of effective communication, or a disagreement regarding direction for a project, most of these issues can be prevented early.
To catch a conflict early, employers and supervisors should foster an environment where employees can feel safe to voice concerns, no matter how small.
Follow up to ensure continued 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. If additional adjustments need to be made, they should be implemented quickly.
Do not allow inappropriate behaviors
While certain types of conflict can be beneficial, some behaviors should not be tolerated under any circumstances. It’s an employer’s responsibility to ensure any of these situations are promptly dealt with in order to maintain a safe working environment. Many of which can have legal consequences for you and your organization.
Zero tolerance behaviors include:
Not only are there legal prohibitions 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 conflict resolution. Now, let’s take a look at how these rules can be applied to 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 ground rules for communication are set. Andrew sends a text to 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 to be read later.
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.
This issue can easily be resolved by setting a policy or expectation regarding communication. They can set expectations about modes of communication, hours of communication, and escalation procedures for emergencies. This should be facilitated by the employer or project supervisor. Though the issue could have been avoided by establishing these guidelines beforehand, the conflict pointed out an issue to be corrected. This resulted in a better process for the whole team.
Scenario 2 - Unclear Expectations
Aimee is in Human Resources at a small organization. In the Employee Handbook it clearly states all employees are expected to work 40 hours a week, Monday through Friday. One employee begins work at 9 AM every day. Another employee starts work at a different time each morning. They both work 40 hours, but it’s difficult to know when the second employee will be available. Aimee feels like they are less reliable than the other employee because she doesn’t know when they’ll be available and working.
Aimee is having a hard time 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 the employee and employer. If the employer is flexible about start times, setting expectations for when and how to communicate availability would also prevent confusion. Aimee should keep an open mind in this situation and consider open communication and policy updates to help set expectations.
Though conflict can feel like a negative, it can also help employers to set expectations and policies to promote a safer and more productive workplace. When handled promptly and correctly, workplace conflicts can be resolved in a positive way that reduces the chances for further tension.
The modern workforce comes with many different perspectives, but employers that listen to employees, create clear guidelines, establish communication protocols, and ensure a safe workplace can help facilitate collaboration and increase employee satisfaction and retention.
This article was originally published January 26, 2015. An updated version was posted on January 19, 2021.