If you’ve never experienced workplace conflict, consider yourself among the minority.
According to a study commissioned by CPP Inc. — publishers of the Myers-Briggs Assessment and the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument — 85% of U.S. employees deal with conflict on some level.
While it’s common to have conflict of some sort in the workplace due to differing personalities, management styles and opinions, it becomes a problem when a situation or disagreement disrupts the flow of work.
According to the report, the following statistics demonstrate how pervasive conflict is in the workplace:
-29% of employees deal with workplace conflict almost constantly
-34% of conflict occurs among front-line employees (employees who deal directly with customers)
-49% of conflict is a result of personality clashes and “warring egos”
-34% of conflict is caused by stress in the workplace
-33% of conflict is caused by heavy workloads
While the overwhelming majority of employees in the study agreed that managing conflict is an important leadership skill, only a small percentage had ever received any training on how to prevent or handle conflict when they entered the workforce.
So, how do you deal with conflict?
Training is the most beneficial and productive way, but if that isn’t available, experts suggest the following ways for managers to handle workplace conflict.
Understand the nature of the conflict. Try not to make assumptions about the conflict or play into rumors that may be circulating. Instead, figure out what’s fueling the disagreement between your employees. Is it clashing personalities? Tight deadlines? A difficult client?
Let individuals express their feelings. Some feelings of anger and/or hurt usually accompany conflict situations. Before any kind of problem-solving can take place, these emotions should be expressed and acknowledged.
Encourage employees to work it out themselves. This doesn’t mean that you stay out of it completely, it just means that as a business leader you want your employees to be self-sufficient – you’re their boss, not their mother. Provide guidance or talking points, if needed, to help each employee approach the other person in a positive manner. Don’t set the expectation that you’ll fix the problem for them, but rather you are there to help facilitate a discussion. While this doesn’t apply to more serious situations, it can be a good first step.
Nip it in the bud. If the employees can’t work it out, then it’s time to step in. This should be done quickly so that the conflict doesn’t get worse. When it’s time to get involved, determine if it would be best to meet with the employees together or separately, then hear them out. Give them time to tell their side of the story and focus on the facts. Once all employees have had this opportunity, ask each of them to offer ideas on how the situation could be resolved and how all parties could move forward. Whatever you do, don’t take sides!
Find a solution. Employees don’t have to be best friends; they just need to get the job done. To help ensure you reach a fair resolution, make sure your decision is aligned with company policy. No employee should be above workplace rules. Also, conflict resolution doesn’t necessarily have to end in agreement. Sometimes, it’s best to agree to disagree, respectfully. When that happens, employees should acknowledge there is a difference of opinion or approach, and come up with a solution together on how to move forward.
Teach them how to communicate. For some employees, talking out a situation isn’t enough. Typically, people who have these types of problems likely have communication issues already. If there’s a lot of discord among your staff, it’s probably time to teach them some basic communication and problem-solving techniques. Personality assessments and training, such as the DiSC profile, may help your employees communicate more effectively as a team.
Don’t completely rule out organizational changes, either.
Sometimes, if it comes down to it, you can improve employee focus and the workplace dynamic by reorganizing teams. It may be helpful to give the employees involved time to “cool off” before they work together again.
In some cases, you will need to involve the Human Resources Department and possibly the legal department, especially if the conflict is a matter of discrimination or harassment.
The best thing a manager can do is lead by example. Building a culture of engaged employees who respect each other and work well together starts at the top. By speaking to your employees in an honest and respectful manner, you create an environment that fosters integrity and communication. When you’re open and honest, employees are more likely to follow suit.