A Manager’s Guide to Workplace Conflict

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May 27, 2019
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Are you a manager trying to deal with disagreements or dissatisfaction in your workplace? Has tension and conflict distracted your staff from working at their best and created an air of negativity or even toxicity in the team?

Workplace conflict is seemingly unavoidable. Executives and managers spend six hours a week on average just dealing with conflict. If not handled properly, conflict can have a huge impact on work productivity, employee satisfaction, staff turnover and even formal complaints or legal action.

But conflict is not always unhealthy.

Depending on how it’s expressed, conflict can mean that employees feel safe enough to voice their concerns. Managers can also take advantage of conflict situations to better understand team dynamics and use them as opportunities for growth within the organisation.

The best way to identify and prevent the escalation of workplace conflict is to provide established and transparent communication channels within the organisation so employees feel safe and confident to express concerns early. For example, you may have a formal grievance procedure in place, or individuals can be appointed within the organisational structure to dedicated roles for handling complaints.

If an issue or conflict is brought to your attention, you need to ensure that you engage with the people involved as soon as possible to avoid negativity spreading to co-workers. A conflict resolution process is about understanding each individual’s side of the story, seeking understanding or acknowledgement between the parties, and ultimately finding a solution that will maintain workplace harmony and productivity.

Here are some tips to guide you through resolving conflict in the workplace.

Have the right systems in place

  • Maintain an internal grievance process.
    Make sure it is well publicised and accessible to employees. This is important for maintaining trust and confidence in your systems and assuring employees that complaints will be taken seriously.
  • Offer support.
    Ensure that employees are aware of any Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) available to them, or anyone else they can speak to confidentially to express their concerns.
  • Maintain a discreet and confidential process.
    This is to ensure that people feel safe enough to come forward with their problems.

Preparing for the process

  • Research and consider possible solutions that can be reached before starting the process.
    This will allow you to understand any limitations for outcomes that can be reached, while also considering how the organisation can adapt to the situation.
  • Adopt the right mindset for conflict resolution.
    Be prepared to separate your own biases from the problem. Be empathetic and approachable.
  • Establishing the right communication channel.
    Analyse the nature of conflict to determine the best way for the individuals to communicate with one another. Ask them what they would feel most comfortable with. Some other things to consider are who should be involved in the discussions and setting some ground rules for the discussions.
It may be valuable to consider engaging a mediator, who is an independent neutral third person (outside the organisation), to facilitate better communication and confidence between the individuals.
  • Be transparent.
    Explain how the process will work to all the individuals involved and assure them of confidentiality (or any limitations) during the process.
  • Allow a support person.
    It may also be helpful for the individuals to bring a support person with them during meetings. A support person may be a friend, colleague or an advisor and their role is to support the emotional well-being of the person in conflict. However, it is important to ensure that their role in the discussions does not cause negativity or inhibit resolution of the conflict. Setting some rules about the role of the support person and the degree of their involvement in the process may be helpful.

During the process

  • Listen with an open mind.
    Try to put yourself in the complainant’s shoes to understand what their main concerns and objectives are.
  • Be cognisant of personal values and beliefs.
    Disagreements are often rooted in differences in personal or cultural values and ideologies. It is important to identify them and address the problem with each individual’s values in mind. Think of how their personal values and self-esteem relate to the conflict.
  • Acknowledge emotions and use empathetic language.
    Conflicts are also rooted in emotions and emotional stress. It is important to acknowledge each individual’s feelings and show empathy and concern. This helps in cultivating trust between the resolver and the individual, as well as between the individuals under conflict.
  • Clear up any misinformation.
    Conflicts may also arise from misunderstandings and misinformation between the individuals. The first step is to let everyone share their perspectives and then to simply acknowledge any differences between the individuals.
  • Remind them to focus on solutions, not just the problems.
    People can often be stuck in the cycle of playing the blame-game or arguing on what-she-said-he-said. Encourage them to move away from the problem and towards solutions by reminding them the importance of everyone getting along.
  • Encourage creative problem solving.
    Make them think of what they can do. Sometimes the easiest solution may not be the best solution. Remind them of their own values and interests at stake and what they would like to gain from resolving the conflict. Also consider solutions that not only work for the individuals but for the organisation as a whole.

When all is said and done

  • Aim to reach agreement and record these commitments moving forward.
    Make sure that the parties involved understand their obligations and are genuinely committed to the solution.
  • Draw a line (if needed). If the parties are unable to reach consensus or engage inappropriately in any way (such as bullying or misconduct), make sure you take further steps as necessary. Consider consulting a workplace advisor or get legal advice about options.
  • Check in with the parties.
    Make sure you schedule time to check in with the individuals involved down the track to make sure the outcomes are being implemented and there are no other issues that need to be addressed.
  • Reflect on what worked and what didn’t work.
    This step is important for any manager that is striving to develop themselves. How would you approach things differently next time? Is there anything you can do to avoid this situation in the future?

Conflict in a workplace is inevitable. How you deal with it as a manager can be the difference between a toxic, negative culture and a thriving, high-performing workplace with satisfied employees.

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