Tips for Dealing with Workplace Conflict

When people work together in groups, there are bound to be occasions when individuals disagree and conflicts arise in the workplace. Whether these disagreements become full-blown feuds or instead fuel creative problem solving is, in large part, up to the person in charge.

You can do a lot to ensure that your employees deal with disagreements in proactive, productive ways by knowing when and how to intervene — and when to let things be.

Here are some practical step-by-step tips for dealing with employee spats in the workplace:

  • Identify the problem. Make sure everyone involved knows exactly what the issue is, and why they are arguing. Talk it out until everyone agrees that there is a problem, and understands what the key issues are.
  • Allow every person involved to clarify his or her perspectives and opinions about the problem. Make sure everyone has an opportunity to express an opinion. If necessary, establish a time limit (say, five minutes per person), and make sure each person sticks to the limit while stating his or her case. It is your responsibility to make sure all participants feel safe and supported.
  • Identify the ideal end result, from each party’s point of view. It might surprise everyone to discover that their visions are not so far apart after all.
  • Figure out what can realistically be done to achieve each individual’s goals. If action is taken, how will this affect other projects and objectives? Will the end result be worth the time and energy spent? If the attempt fails, what’s the worst that can happen?
  • Find an area of compromise. Is there some part of the issue on which everyone agrees? If not, try to identify long-term goals that mean something to everyone, and start from there.

A little forethought can go a long way toward preventing conflicts among coworkers. To minimize the incidence of spats, here are some preventive measures you can take:

  • Bring issues out in the open before they become problems.
  • Be aware of triggers, and respond to them when you first notice them.
  • Have a process for resolving conflicts — bring up the subject at a meeting, and get agreement on what people should do in cases of differing viewpoints.
  • Make sure everyone understands the company’s goals and expectations, including what’s expected of each individual. Be as clear as you can about job descriptions, responsibilities, and territories.
  • Provide appropriate training for all employees. Teach everyone conflict-resolution skills, and expect people to use them.
  • Recognize and praise accomplishment. If employees feel valued and appreciated for the work they do, they are less likely to jockey for position and start fights.
  • Discourage gossip, and don’t put people in the position of spying or reporting on each other. Create consistent performance review procedures that apply to everyone equally.
  • Make sure expectations are realistic and consistent with job descriptions.

Informal counseling provides managers and supervisors with an effective means of addressing and managing conflict in the workplace. This may take the form of meetings, negotiation/mediation sessions, or other dispute-resolution processes. Informal resolution of complaints at any stage of the process also provides managers with a no-fault, low- or no-cost means of restoring harmony and productivity to the organization.

Generally speaking, managers who successfully manage conflicts in their organizations will experience lower rates of complaints than managers who fail to do so. Additionally, informal resolution of complaints terminates further administrative processing and related costs.

Finally, old-fashioned civility can bring a sense of peace and harmony to an otherwise stressful workplace. Incivility in the office carries a very high price in both human and financial terms. Conversely, a more civil workplace environment means a better quality of life for employees. Higher quality of life for your employees means higher-quality work, which is indeed an incentive to all organizations to foster a “culture of civility” at work.