Posted by Robert Half on 13 April 2017
According to a report commissioned by Safe Work Australia, the cost of psychosocial workplace stress, to which workplace conflict is a major contributor, is over $8 billion annually.
While conflict in the workplace is unavoidable, it can be minimised. In any group made of individuals with different needs and goals there will be disputes, and this is particularly true when those people have differing levels of power and privilege. No matter how small or large your office team may be, people and their ideas can clash. When they do, the only guaranteed losers are team spirit and office morale.
Conflict management is an unfortunate challenge that many managers will face. But with the right strategy, problem solving skills and direction, these conflicts can be resolved and soon forgotten.
If you’re in a leadership position, consider these conflict management strategies — before an employee conflict turns into full-blown office fireworks:
1. Keep things cool with a private meeting
When it’s time to intervene in an employee conflict, a private meeting may be the way to go. By acting as a calm mediator, you’ll give the embattled parties a chance to share their perspectives in private instead of making a public scene.
This change alone may lead to a quick resolution, because the co-workers can communicate in a more candid way.
2. Put things into perspective
Office disagreements are often over small details. But it can be hard to see that in the heat of the moment. A missed deadline can seem like the end of the world when, in reality, the project timeline included built-in wiggle room. Help remind staff of the big picture to avoid a workplace conflict arising.
3. Remind employees that working together is part of the job
Without being threatening or presenting ultimatums, make it known to employees that working individually isn’t enough. There are few jobs, if any, that don’t rely on the help from other team members.
Soft skills like teamwork and relationship building are just as important to their success.
4. Remain objective and document everything
No matter what employee conflict arises, you have to take the high road — which means never taking sides or showing favouritism. If the final outcome can be perceived as one person winning and the other losing, you’ve kicked the root of the problem down the road.
Whenever a workplace conflict is serious, document all the details, including both sides’ stories, so you have a record to rely on later, if necessary.
5. Know when to stay out of it
Before you dive in to save the day, choose your battles. Small workplace conflicts often resolve themselves without any collateral damage. If you jump into every situation, people will turn to you whenever a problem arises and won’t learn how to deal with issues themselves.
Although employee conflict management is part of your job, it shouldn’t take over your work life.
6. Prevention is better than cure
Most conflicts start because workplaces haven’t created the necessary safeguards, workplace culture and processes to ensure that all staff are being treated fairly and respectfully.
That’s not to say there are no problem individuals, but these individuals often act as a ‘miner’s canary’, letting us know there is a deeper, more systemic problem. Training managers in professional communication and behaviour, and training staff in how to communicate constructively about their issues, will prevent most conflict from occurring.
Conflict rarely arises suddenly. It emerges over time and can be discovered by watching for absenteeism, low productivity, staff disengagement, low morale and poor retention. These are clear indicators that there is a need to improve ‘bottom up’ feedback processes and pay attention to the culture of the workplace.
Once conflict has become ‘personal’, with one or both parties attacking the other’s character, motivations or value, it is a very difficult situation to recover from. We do not easily forget or forgive personal attacks.
It is essential that disputes be framed in non-personal terms if at all possible, though often this is unachievable as it has been caused by personal idiosyncrasies. At the very least it needs to be about an individual’s behaviours and not about their character if there is to be any hope of a successful outcome.
8. Independent conflict resolution
In almost every conflict there will be errors on both sides. Nothing will stall a process of conflict management faster than one party attempting to make themselves invulnerable to minimise their risk while maximising the other person’s by trying to force them into compliance.
This inevitably means the other party has to call in power of their own by taking legal action or involving unions. The sooner independent mediation is involved the better the chance of a successful resolution.
A mediator will help the parties discharge the emotional energy, to listen to the other party’s point of view and to agree on a mutually desired outcome. Empathy and perspective are far better tools for conflict management than power can ever be.
If mediation has failed then there is no choice but to seek adjudication, preferably from an independent body that both parties agree has the right to make a binding decision. Most governments provide dispute resolution and adjudication services such as the Australian Fair Work Commission.
Conflict management is both inevitable and mostly avoidable – if you take the time to set up the correct processes and culture that can nip it in the bud early.