How to handle conflict in the workplace
October 30, 2019
It is likely you have encountered conflict at work at some point during your career. It is more likely you recently encountered conflict. In fact, according to CPP, Inc. - a management consulting arm under The Myers-Brigg Company – through their research, reports 85% of employees experience some kind of workplace conflict and 29% experience this conflict on a “constant” basis. They also report this amounts to 2.8 hours every week being lost to conflict or $359 billion in hours paid. In other words, conflict is highly disruptive.
There are essentially two kinds of conflict – healthy conflict, where co-workers are open to listen and collaborate with one another to solve issues and unhealthy conflict. The latter leaves little room for collaboration, and over time the colleagues become opposing forces, determined to win at the expense of the other. Let's explore how to handle conflict in the workplace.
What are the Main Causes for Conflict in the Workplace
Conflict in the workplace usually occurs for three primary reasons:
Communication is an essential skill that, and when lacking, can wreak havoc in a team, department, and organization. Often a co-worker’s feelings get hurt or they get frustrated because they don't feel others are listening to them or understand their point of view.
When management does not set clear expectations regarding individual roles boundaries get crosses and people feel threatened, frustrated, or overwhelmed. This builds resentment and tension between co-workers. Perhaps even worse, when management plays favorites. Every worker needs to know where they stand, what is expected, and that the same rules apply to all employees.
We have all worked with strong personalities, such as the know-it-all. Well, there are a host of different work personalities including the overachiever, the conflict-avoidant, the complainers, and so forth. And when these different personalities come together, there are bound to be clashes. These clashes can easily become unhealthy conflicts when one or more employees do not feel valued or respected.
How to Manage Conflict in the Workplace
Most HR professionals will encourage management to, at least initially, let co-workers to try and manage conflict on their own, but this cannot happen if the workplace culture does not value each employee and empower them to manage that conflict.
As an employee, you can do the following to manage conflict:
- Identify the source of the conflict, i.e. hurt feelings, misunderstandings, etc.
- Actively listen to your colleagues so they feel valued and heard
- Step out of yourself and your perspective to learn more from others – be empathetic
- Avoid placing blame and instead look to the future for solutions
- Enter every potential conflict with the desire to find the win/win versus the I win/you lose mentality
As an employer, it is imperative that you create a culture where conflict (healthy) is valued and unhealthy is recognized and dealt with in a timely manner. This should include:
- Collectively create a set of shared values and then actively apply these shared values daily
- Model healthy conflict resolutions
- Foster respect for diverse voices and opinions
- Encourage collaboration
- Set clear expectations and define each person’s role and responsibilities
- Show respect to all employees and never play favorites
- Actively listen to employee concerns
We are human, each one of us is unique, and we bring a different set of experiences to the table with us, which means there will be conflict. And there is no doubt conflict can bring about great change, positive change, but the causes and the lack of addressing those causes that is the issue. Both employees and employers have a role to play in reducing negative conflicts. Employees need to take responsibility for their own behavior. Employers need to create an environment where employees feel valued and safe to handle conflict. Employees should not be expected to come to work on a daily basis worried about conflict, it hampers productivity and it creates lower employee retention. When employees do feel respected and valued and safe to work through conflict on their own, it leaves the door open to innovation and progress. But when employees are left on their own or do not feel safe, conflict spreads like a disease.
Whether you are in a management role or not, take the first step by facing conflict. The more you embrace it as an opportunity to move forward, and approach it by finding common ground, the less conflict-avoidant you will be and when we can collaborate without negativity, the possibilities are endless.
Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Clinical Professor
Department Head of Graduate Studies
Pollack Peace Building