Anyone who’s been in the workforce long enough will inevitably run into some form of conflict with a coworker, manager, or team.
Within your organization, there can be a variety of ages, genders, religious backgrounds, sexual orientations, and races. These differences can bring varied perspectives that are extremely valuable. But, a lack of shared experiences or different communication styles can cause potential conflicts and disagreements.
While employers prefer to avoid disputes and difficult conversations, you must still have conflict resolution strategies. Correctly handling workplace conflict 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.
Takeaways from this blog post:
- Resolving workplace conflicts early on can prevent minor issues from escalating into destructive employee disputes. To be successful, you’ll need an open mind, a clear company policy, and the ability to respect and welcome differences.
- Certain behaviors, such as workplace harassment, discrimination, and violence, may have legal consequences if you don’t address them. Open lines of communication and updating your employee handbook can set expectations and resolve conflicts positively.
- Employers should create a safe space for employees to voice their concerns and take proactive steps to address conflicts. You can improve collaboration and increase employee satisfaction with transparent guidelines and honest conversations.
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 working toward a resolution. To have good employment relationships with your staff, you should keep an open mind to all opinions and avoid declaring a position.
In the workplace, certain types of conflict are inevitable. But you can minimize the negative impact conflict has on you and your employees. You can reach an innovative solution more quickly if you keep an open mind, use active listening techniques, and try to find common ground, turning the situation into productive conflict.
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 problems arise, they should know who to contact to report personal issues and what protocols to follow.
As an employer, you must set ground rules for your organization from day one. 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 your organization considers 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 and a greater culture of trust in your organization.
3. Respect and welcome differences
Where there’s unhealthy 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 the involved 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 you can’t reach a solution or compromise by addressing individual concerns, the issue may result from unclear policies or expectations.
Showing people respect, regardless of their point of view or personality type, 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 arguments.
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, try to solve the source of conflict immediately before it becomes a real blowup. Unresolved matters not only make the environment uncomfortable, but they can affect an employee’s work performance.
To detect signs of employee conflict early, you should foster an environment where your staff can feel safe to voice concerns, no matter how small. Have regular conversations with employees to get to know them and their needs. Support your employees and be that person to mitigate the situation and promote healthy relationships.
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 you need to make additional adjustments, take action quickly. Reiterate the disciplinary actions and common goals 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, you shouldn’t tolerate some behaviors under any circumstances.
Anyone in a leadership role 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
- Sexual 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 practical conflict-resolution skills.
Workplace conflict scenarios
Problematic situations will inevitably arise. So, let’s look at how you can apply these action plans 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 had a brief introduction and received some project details, but no one set standard ground rules for communication or providing constructive feedback.
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 honest communication, such as training active listening skills, outlining communication timelines, and escalation procedures for emergencies. You can also set expectations for working hours.
Though you could have avoided the issue by establishing proper approaches to conflict beforehand, the situation 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 weekly, 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 a.m. and other days closer to 10 a.m.
They both work 40 hours, but knowing when the second employee will be available is challenging. Aimee feels they’re less reliable than the other employee because she doesn’t know when they’re 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 their available hours would help alleviate confusion for 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 use assertive communication strategies and policy updates to help set expectations.
Disagreements and conflict are human nature—and the workplace is not immune from these challenges. Certain types of conflict can feel negative, but they can also help you create and update policies to promote a safer and positive work culture. When handled correctly, you can resolve workplace conflicts positively, reducing the chance of further tension between the individual participants.
The modern workforce comes with many different perspectives. But, if you listen to your employees, create a plan of action, have honest conversations, and brainstorm solutions, you can develop creative solutions to conflict and increase employee satisfaction and retention at your company.
This article was originally published on January 26, 2015. It was last updated on January 26, 2024.
Elizabeth Walker is a content marketing specialist at PeopleKeep. She has worked for the company since April 2021. Elizabeth has been a writer for more than 20 years and has written several poems and short stories, in addition to publishing two children’s books in 2019 and 2021. Her background as a musician and love of the arts continues to inspire her writing and strengthens her ability to be creative.