Have you ever felt tension in a workplace grow into a feud between coworkers? The tension might come from two employees applying for the same promotion, frustration during group projects or simple personality clashes.
Whatever the root cause, employee disputes are costly. One study estimates that work conflict alone costs roughly $359 billion1 each year in paid hours across the U.S. Time that should’ve been spent working was instead spent navigating conflict. And according to another analysis, managers spend up to 40% of their time resolving workplace conflict.2
Of course, whenever two or more people start working together, disagreements may happen. That can be a good thing for institutions! It indicates a diversity of thought and perspectives, and potential for growth and evolution. So how do we help make these unavoidable conflicts less painful and more helpful?
Employers need to have effective strategies in place to address and resolve disagreements and confrontations. In this article, we’ll cover some common causes of conflict as well as effective resolution strategies, how to use them and why they work.
There are endless causes for conflict in the workplace. But, because human nature suggests that we all share similar needs, there are specific behaviors that are common to almost all workplace environments. By knowing them well, we can have a better understanding of how to address issues.
Things can get lost in translation. And the workplace is a prime arena for miscommunication. Teams have to collaborate with one another and share deliverables. Something as simple as forgetting to “cc” the right person in the email chain can cause key points to get lost.
Communication has to be clear and consistent. Make sure all members of a team know what is expected of them. And if something’s amiss, make sure everyone knows the right person to speak with.
Human beings can be fundamentally different. Someone on your team may have a keen perception of time. Their coworker may focus more about getting deliverables in on schedule, but will come in half an hour late. Some folks love office structure. Others like to work remotely. Some people prefer calling or chatting about an issue, while some may prefer a direct message or email.
Knowing these differences in work styles and communication habits can make managers better able to put teams together and designate different tasks.
It sometimes feels like we spend more time with our coworkers than with our families. So, naturally, we get invested in our workplaces and the people within them.
Each member of your workplace has a unique vision and insight—how the place is run, what could be streamlined and what’s most important. Even with a well-defined mission statement, employees may have conflicting ideas of how to best achieve company goals.
It could be that someone with leadership potential is in a subordinate position. Two employees may be collaborating on a project and struggling to identify the project leader.
Power dynamics are always worth noting in the workplace. They might not be immediately mendable, but with effective conflict resolution techniques, mutual respect can be rebuilt over time.
We want diversity of thought and different perspectives in the workplace. Having that means more dynamic resolutions can be found and new and better strategies can be implemented for resolving conflict.
But to really reap the benefits of an eclectic staff, we need effective practices to communicate. Experience and research have identified a number of methods that can help resolve conflict.
Most of the time when we are listening to someone, we’re only half present with what they’re saying. We’re often preparing our response or even just zoning out, pulled into our own train of thought. Keeping engaged and open body language lets the other person know you're present with them and their issue.
When we listen actively, the other party knows that their words are being fully received. This can go a long way toward easing tension. Sometimes the issue being addressed is only secondary to their real need: feeling heard and understood.
Putting oneself in the other person’s position can open up dialogue that promotes connection and understanding. It’s worth noting that empathy may come naturally to many people, but not all. Some may need to be guided through logic to see what the other person has experienced and find common ground.
Problem solving: This can be the most difficult part. This is when opposing parties put aside their specific vision or the outcome they think is right. For the sake of the company or the team, they explore new options. Together, they find common ground and build toward a different solution. This is almost always most effective when the parties themselves draw up the idea for a solution. It’s human nature to be more invested in an idea we created. But some cases might need to call in a mediator, equipped with objectivity, empathy and active listening skills.
Especially in cases of power dynamics, it may be necessary to add a third party, like a mediator, to the conflict resolution process. One party may not feel safe addressing issues without the presence of a fellow team member or human resources representative. It’s the mediator's task to guide conversation through sympathetic curiosity. When conflict leads to serious, improper behavior, like bullying, a third party may be essential. Also, a company may risk exposure to claims, if the company fails to provide employees with a complaint process that timely and thoroughly investigates those complaints and takes appropriate action.
Knowing these practices is not quite enough, a business should consider to employ them as part of a comprehensive policy and plan. Businesses might want to identify these steps as part of their employee handbooks so everyone is clear.
There are many personal and economic benefits when companies resolve workplace conflict quickly and consistently.
Conflict arises. It's unavoidable. But a company's success is enhanced when workplace conflicts can be resolved and employees can express differing opinions freely and constructively. TriNet helps small and medium-size businesses by offering resources and HR support to help with communication skills and to navigate these tricky HR situations. We can help a company with the foundations for conflict management and leadership training.
At TriNet, we offer strategy with support.
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