Some business leaders may argue that conflict in the workplace can be a good thing. Conflict among team members could spur innovative ideas, provide fresh solutions to existing problems, and foster a sense of collaboration. But not all workplace conflict is positive, and there are compelling reasons to identify and learn how to resolve workplace conflict before it generates negativity within your team and becomes counterproductive.
In any industry, employees are likely to bump heads from time to time; left unchecked, this could lead to a dysfunctional, hostile work environment, steep declines in team productivity, bouts of absenteeism, increasing employee turnover, and poor customer service. These negatives can drastically outweigh the positives of allowing conflict in the workplace to resolve on its own. As a business leader, you should take steps to proactively monitor and manage this staff dynamic.
Here is a closer look at how you can better manage workplace conflict:
How to prevent conflicts from arising at work
Preventing conflict in the workplace begins with having clear expectations about how employees should act and communicate. But even companies with top-notch HR policies and clear communication can still experience conflict from time to time. To identify and defuse conflict issues quickly, consider building these practices into your company culture:
- Create a culture where employees can raise concerns. Whenever possible, begin by creating an environment where employees feel safe to raise concerns directly with members of the management team. You can foster this environment by increasing your visibility and engagement with employees, providing opportunities for employees to raise concerns anonymously, and showing appreciation for issues brought to the attention of the management team. It's important to focus on a culture of transparency, where team members can raise concerns without fear of reprisal.
- Don't allow problems to fester. By ignoring a brewing conflict in the workplace, you are also ignoring the emotionally charged responses that your team members may have regarding the situation. Depending on their level of involvement within the conflict, employees may feel distracted, angry, fearful, confused, slighted, resentful, or vindictive. Unchecked emotions can cause the problem to escalate further when employees react without clear perspective on the situation. Make sure your team knows that you understand that conflict is a natural occurrence within the workplace and that you are there to help them through it. Communicate your open-door policy to all new employees and follow up regularly to show your continued commitment to fostering a cohesive team.
- Make sure people know what they're supposed to do. Conflicts sometimes occur when job descriptions are fuzzy or job functions overlap from one employee to the next. Employees need to understand what they're responsible for and whom they report to, otherwise confusion may rush in to fill the gap. Clearly defined job descriptions and procedures for working together can significantly lessen the possibility of unproductive conflict.
Common causes of conflict within different types of workplaces
While having the tools to identify conflict can be beneficial, it's also important to understand what can trigger it in the first place. Although some causes — such as differing opinions and personality clashes — may be universal conflict agents across any industry, different work environments may experience unique stressors that lead to conflict in the workplace.
Causes of workplace conflict in startups: If your company is in the startup phase, you may be overly focused on the customer-facing aspects of your business, which can cause things like employee evaluations or routine employee training to fall by the wayside. Lack of feedback and job clarity are two common causes of conflict in startups, and these can be exacerbated in environments with talented but headstrong employees.
Causes of workplace conflict in restaurants: In an environment where employees are paid based on gratuities — as in the restaurant industry — the work environment can become cutthroat as team members fight for prime customers who are likely to offer the most generous tips. Since kitchen bottlenecks can have a direct impact on tipped employees' wages, tensions could run high when even the smallest mistakes are made.
Causes of workplace conflict in construction: Since construction projects often require the cooperation of hundreds of people working over successive phases, there are multiple opportunities for conflicts to arise. Tight time constraints, changing expectations, limited resources, and poor communication can all derail project timelines, adding even more stress to an already stressful work environment.
Causes of workplace conflict in health care: Medical professionals are frequently expected to go above and beyond the call of duty in their roles. Doctors and nurses put themselves at risk daily in caring for patients' personal needs, managing hazardous materials, and working extremely long shifts with little rest. Healthcare employees (medical professionals as well as the front office staff) can feel overworked and unappreciated, leading to short tempers and increased workplace conflict.
Causes of workplace conflict in manufacturing: Manufacturing employees can include unionized workers whose labor contracts are heavily regulated by union officials. Wage disputes, improper safety standards, and excessive hours are just a few of the issues that could lead to conflicts and possibly even strikes.
How to resolve workplace conflict
Once you are aware of conflict within your team, it's important to take these concerns seriously and act quickly. Knowing that any conflicts will be identified and addressed promptly can often preemptively encourage team members to avoid or resolve conflict on their own. When conflicts do occur, the following steps can help everyone involved to arrive at an amicable solution.
1. Understand the benefits of employee conflict and embrace it
Constructive workplace conflict can improve camaraderie between your team members and develop them as both individuals and coworkers. By leading them through a peaceful process of conflict resolution, you are equipping your team with the skills to guide their own subordinates through conflict in the future. Conflict situations can also help bring to light misunderstandings or a lack of clarity in company policies and procedures, which can then provide the foundation for improving company operations in the future. By embracing the positive things that conflict can add to your team, you are more likely to remain calm and work toward a peaceful solution.
2. Confront conflict face-to-face
When the time comes to mediate conflict, you may not want to resort to emails to get the job done. The quickest and most efficient tactic is often meeting face-to-face with the involved parties.
Following a few commonsense principles can facilitate resolution. Consider the following:
- Invite all relevant team members to a meeting in a neutral, distraction-free setting.
- Give team members time to prepare for the meeting.
- At the meeting itself, allow everyone equal time to state their case.
- Listen carefully and respectfully to what people say, without passing judgment. Acknowledge the value of each person's comments. People like to be heard before they can begin objectively reevaluating a negative situation.
- Don't allow the conversation to wander off on a tangent. Also, be on the lookout for any remarks that can be construed as overly personal or even intentionally hurtful. Such input should be discouraged right away.
- Remain impartial throughout the discussion. In the early phase of the meeting, expressing your own opinions will only cloud the process. And by maintaining an evenhanded tone, you'll encourage others to remain even-tempered as well.
- Seek out common ground. Suggest small compromises that differing parties may not have considered. Often, small changes in position can lead to larger-scale concessions.
3. Investigate areas of concern
If a concern is brought to your attention, it's important to act and evaluate the situation. Investigate all complaints — don't make assumptions. After you examine the situation, take the time to gather all the facts. Talk to different individuals involved. Observe situations on your own. Examine any documentation that might support claims being made.
The severity of the situation should dictate your actions. However, before moving forward, assess the veracity of the claims, their seriousness, and the perspectives of different players.
4. Provide intervention and resources to resolve conflict at work
For situations that require a legal and/or management response, it's important to escalate them and follow the company's defined procedures in partnership with HR and legal counsel. When issues come up that are important but less severe, consider providing resources to help the situation. Suggest that employees utilize your employee assistance program if your company offers it. If there's friction within a team that could be hashed out with a level-headed conversation, consider encouraging a discussion mediated by an experienced member of HR. Focus on providing support and solutions that can help create a positive professional environment and get everyone back to focusing on their work.
5. Increase visibility and engagement
As you work through the conflict within your team, it's important to remain visible throughout the process. If you are discovering conflict issues secondhand, you may consider elevating your presence within the office and engaging more regularly with team members. Have regular meetings and incorporate positive communications to foster a sense of teamwork. When executives, managers, and HR are a regular part of your team's day, employees will feel more comfortable confronting conflict situations head on.
6. Remind staff about expectations for resolving employee conflict
When concerns are raised behind the scenes, evaluate what the larger implications could mean. For example, if concerns have been raised about security or safety violations, it might signal the need for refresher training for your entire team or department. If complaints of slacking off, tension between staff, or gossiping lead to a negative environment, consider dedicating a staff meeting to share what you've observed and conducting a clear conversation around workplace expectations.
Start managing your business's employee conflict with the help of HR professionals
While there are several small steps you can take immediately, an effective long-term method of managing workplace conflict is an approach coordinated with a team of HR experts. Consider using such resources to implement policy or procedural changes, and maintain proper standards when handling conflict in the workplace.