Anyone who’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 preferred, you still need to have conflict management skills. 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 highlight scenarios to help you create a better environment for your employees.
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 work towards a resolution begins. You should 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 conflict has on you and your employees. You can 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 description and daily duties. If any problems arise, they should know who to come to with any issues and what protocols to follow.
As an employer, it’s important that you set ground rules for your organization from day one of employment. Your employee handbook is an excellent place to keep your policies that relate to workplace conflict. This should include details like effective communication methods, discrimination policies, and what is considered harassment.
Leaving little room for interpretation regarding 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 essential in fostering a positive company culture. This can help avoid conflict situations from arising in the first place and assist with resolving them. If you enforce the policies consistently, there will be fewer misunderstandings.
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 a solution or compromise can’t be reached by addressing individual concerns, the issue may result from 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, verbal interactions in the workplace should be constructive conversations, not an argument.
4. Catch the conflict early
Minor issues that aren’t resolved early on can grow into more destructive conflicts. Whether it’s personality conflicts, office gossip, inappropriate body language, or a disagreement regarding the direction of a project, most of these issues are preventable.
If a problem arises between conflicting employees, make an effort to solve the conflict immediately before it grows into a larger issue. Unresolved matters not only make the environment uncomfortable, but they can affect an employee’s work performance.
To detect signs of 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—depending on the nature of the unresolved conflict—it may be helpful to follow up with all parties after a few days or weeks to ensure that things are working smoothly. These post-mediation discussions are also an opportunity to work through any problems that may have happened since the initial meeting.
If additional adjustments are needed, take action quickly. Reiterate the plan and common goal behind resolving the conflict, and ensure that both parties fully understand their commitment to solving it.
6. Don’t allow inappropriate behaviors
While certain types of conflict can be beneficial, some behaviors shouldn’t be tolerated under any circumstances.
As a business owner, you must ensure any of these situations are promptly dealt with to maintain safe and productive work environments. Many of these situations can have legal consequences for you and your organization if not dealt with properly.
Zero-tolerance behaviors include:
- Workplace harassment
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, but employee satisfaction depends on having a safe workplace.
These general rules will help you develop effective conflict-resolution skills.
Workplace conflict scenarios
Problematic situations will inevitably arise. So let’s look at how these rules can be applied to specific workplace disputes.
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 one set standard ground rules for communication.
Andrew texts one of his colleagues about the project late in the evening. His colleague is frustrated because it’s outside work hours and could have waited until the following day, or Andrew could have sent an email.
The problem is Andrew and his colleague aren’t on the same page regarding the best way to contact each other about their project. You can resolve this issue by setting a policy or expectations regarding communication, such as training active listening skills, outlining communication timelines, and escalation procedures for emergencies.
Though the issue could have been avoided by establishing these guidelines beforehand, the conflict pointed out a problem and resulted in a better process going forward.
Scenario 2: Unclear expectations
Aimee works in human resources at a small organization. The employee handbook states all employees must work 40 hours each 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 and other days closer to 10.
They both work 40 hours, but knowing when the second employee will be available is challenging. 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 meets their hourly requirement but doesn’t meet Aimee’s 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 available would help alleviate confusion for both you and your employees.
If you’re flexible about start times, setting expectations for when and how to communicate availability, such as an employee calendar, would also prevent confusion. In this situation, Aimee should keep an open mind and consider open communication and policy updates to help set expectations.
Conflict can feel negative, but it can also help you create and update policies to promote a safer and more productive workplace. When handled correctly, you can resolve workplace conflicts positively, reducing the chance of further tension.
The modern workforce comes with many different perspectives, but if you listen to your employees, create transparent guidelines, and have honest 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 April 24, 2023.