Do you know what's the most popular online search about workplaces? You've probably guessed it - "how to resolve conflict with a colleague".
With all of these employees turning to Google, It's not surprising that 38% of employees in the U.K. experience interpersonal conflict at work in an average year.
Everybody knows when it’s happening ... but no one talks about it. People on the company team are being affected negatively by another team member.
The low-level conflict rumbles on, leading to a general sense of disengagement and unhappiness. That's the opposite of the employee engagement we all want to encourage!
Most organisations manage conflict through formal procedures – disciplinaries, grievances, employment tribunals and the like – which are, of course, typically HR responsibilities.
Unfortunately, such procedures typically kick in when the conflict has escalated, and the longer it goes on the more difficult it is to resolve.
Secondly, people are often guilty of ‘hiding behind’ the procedures and failing to address the low-level conflict that rumbles on all the time. That low-level conflict again!
Conflict resolution is an issue a lot of employers and managers have to face and it can be unsettling for everyone. You need to take the right approach as early as possible to ensure it doesn't grow out of proportion.
Conflict can cause a toxic environment within the workplace so you need to fully understand the situation and act responsibly.
"Conflict is a given; the outcomes of that conflict are a choice."
Symptoms of conflict
How do you recognise when workplace conflict is occuring? Just like a doctor, you can look out for the symptoms. Here are a few signs that people are in conflict at work:
- Motivation drops: fewer people volunteer to take on new tasks and there is little employee input at team meetings or briefings.
- Behaviour changes: people start to make derogatory remarks towards each other and there are fewer social events organised.
- Productivity falls: there are likely to be more queries and complaints if people are not cooperating with each other.
- Sickness absence increases: unhappiness may lead to depression or stress.
- Responses to staff attitude surveys or questionnaires: indicate underlying dissatisfaction.
Causes of conflict
In order to address conflict between employees before they escalate, we need to understand why conflict is happening in the first place. Ask yourself whether you recognise any of these issues that can cause conflict between individuals and groups at work:
Unclear job roles
Poor work environment
Lack of equal opportunities
Bullying and harassment
To prevent conflict leading to strikes or employment tribunal claims, you need to intervene as soon as possible.
1. Timing Is Key
Don't avoid the situation or put it off until another day. Timing is everything when it comes to managing conflict. When you have evidence that a situation is negatively impacting others, take action.
Striking too early without proper information will lead to possible confrontation. But it's important that employees see that you are acting and can deal with conflict.
2. Know Your employees
Everyone deals with conflict differently, so you must know the risks and rewards of conflict resolution within the boundaries of each of your employees.
Try having one-to-one discussions with employees on a regular basis or engaging in coaching sessions so all employees know what is expected and what is not acceptable.
3. Respect Differences
Everyone will view things from differing points of view - so you do have to listen, interpret the situation and respect cultural and generational diversity. Conflict resolution is rarely black and white.
Your listening skills may take centre stage, but if tensions rise you need to ensure no one steps out of line.
4. Confront the Tension
Conflict can yield an emotional state of mind that makes it more difficult to manage it. Confront it rather than allowing it to fester.
Even if a situation seems trivial to you, it could be a major grievance for one of the parties involved and lead to attrition down the road.
5. Build Team Cohesion
Communication is essential in a team and, above all, they need to understand that what they do together as a team is better than what they do on their own and so respect for each other is essential.
You need to encourage an environment where the workplace will embrace healthy conflict but not tolerate negative or toxic issues that will cause a breakdown in the culture you are creating.