Whenever two people work in close proximity, friction is inevitable. Employees and teams can come into conflict over anything from company policy and individual performance to interpersonal disputes. What can you, as a manager, do to resolve conflict at work? Is there any way to keep disagreements from hurting workplace culture and productivity?
The Reality of Conflict at Work
Every manager wishes that their team could cooperate fully and collaborate efficiently 100% of the time. Most every manager also knows that this dream team does not exist. Every week, employees across the U.S. spend an average of 2.8 hours dealing with conflict at work. This adds up to 2 ½ weeks of productivity lost per employee each year.
Where conflict is rampant, employees disengage and ultimately leave. According to one Columbia University study, companies with a poor culture had a turnover rate of 48.4%, compared to just 13.9% in companies with a healthy corporate culture. Personality differences, management styles, and stress can all create conflict between team members and put your team’s efficiency and good humor at risk. As a manager, it is up to you to see where conflict is brewing and resolve it before it has a lasting effect on your team.
Identify Conflict Early
It can be easy for managers and supervisors to ignore conflict between coworkers. It will not be so easy for your coworkers to work around the dispute. Over time, tensions build up, and what may have been a simple misunderstanding could grow into a serious interpersonal problem. Identify conflict early and intercede when you see it to help diffuse the situation and move your team toward better communication.
Address Conflict with a Cool Head
You want to identify conflict early, but you generally shouldn’t call it out in the moment. When tempers are high and emotions raw, calling attention to the emotional employees could embarrass them, and backfire on you. Instead, approach the coworkers in the dispute privately and individually, to ask if you can help resolve the situation. Then set up a time for them to get together and discuss the issue once everyone has a cool head.
Focus on the Issues, Not the Personalities
As a facilitator, one of your main jobs will be to keep conflict at work from turning personal. To the extent possible, intercept blaming accusations and personal attacks. Keep everyone involved focused on the issues, rather than the personalities. Encourage them to describe their own experiences, rather than attributing thoughts or behaviors to others. If someone begins to take things personally, remind them of your shared goal to find a comfortable solution.
Listen to Understand, Not to Respond
The term “active listening” is a buzzword from years gone by, but the ideas behind it remain valid to conflict resolution. All too often, in a dispute, each participant only listens to what the other is saying so that he or she can come back with a retort. Ask them later what the other person’s position was, and they won’t be able to answer. As the facilitator, model listening for understanding instead of responses. Repeat back what your coworkers have told you before replying, to confirm you understood them properly.
Commit to Consensus While Respecting Different Perspectives
Resolving conflict depends on everyone involved agreeing about a new process, commitment, or strategy. Remember that facilitating workplace disputes is not just about giving coworkers a chance to air their grievances, you also need to move toward a solution. Ask each participate if they can agree to the proposed solution. If not, listen to why it will not work for them. Notice, you are not the one imposing the solution on your team here. Instead, the resolution to your conflict should come out of the needs and priorities voiced by the participants in the conversation.
Developing your own ability to resolve conflict at work can improve your team’s productivity and reduce the chances you’ll be looking to be fill a vacancy. By taking the time to facilitate disputes and model good communication, you will help your coworkers work together more smoothly, and reduce conflict in your workplace.
David Stanislaw is an organizational development specialist with over 30 years’ experience helping teams resolve conflict in the workplace. Through facilitation and one-on-one executive coaching, David helps managers, supervisors, and executives develop the skills to resolve conflict at work. Contact us to meet with David and advance your professional development today.