- What is a Workplace Conflict?
- 8 Common Causes of Conflict in The Workplace
- 5 Detrimental Effects of Allowing Conflict in The Workplace to Become Out of Hand
- Can Workplace Conflict Ever be Healthy or Useful?
- The Importance of Conflict Resolution Training
- What Conflict Resolution Skills Should a Supervisor/Manager Have?
- 15 Tips For Resolving Conflict in The Workplace
- Can You Ever Completely Avoid The Risk of Workplace Conflict?
In order for a workplace to be a happy and comfortable place to work, there need to be many elements working together. Employees need to feel supported, valued, they need to enjoy the work they do and they also need to feel that if they required help, they would be able to access it. These as basic human needs.
Part and parcel of working in a large office is also the social element. Whilst we don’t go to work to have a party or kick back and drink coffee with our friends, it does help to get along well with your work colleagues and to have a series of people within the office who you class as your friends too. It certainly makes the time you spend sitting at your office desk go much faster, and you enjoy your work far more too!
Of course, when you work in an open plan office with many different people, the chances of the occasional fallout, misunderstanding or conflict can be quite high. This is normal. People are people and sometimes we take things the wrong way, take umbrage at something which was said and not meant in a bad way, or we simply don’t agree with the view of another person.
The problem is, when this happens in a close working environment, it can cause problems with morale and the issue can spread out across the rest of the office and affect everyone else at their office chairs.
With all of this in mind, this guide is going to talk about a very important subject - conflict resolution in the workplace.
Whilst you can never really completely rule out the chances of having a conflict within the office environment, you can do a lot to try and avoid them, and if they do occur, you can learn ways to help reduce their effect and overcome them. Whether you’re a manager, a supervisor, a leader, or you’re an employee within an office, learning how to deal with workplace conflict is vital.
Sometimes this is as easy as simply agreeing to disagree, but other times the situation might be a little more complex. The good news is that there is no issue you can’t solve with a little careful thinking, understanding and time.
What is a Workplace Conflict?
You might think this is a ridiculous question to ask because surely it’s clear what a workplace conflict is, but if you want to truly get a handle on a subject and understand it clearly, you need to break it down and define the basics.
Conflict is a wide-ranging subject. It can be as simple as a quick disagreement which causes a little bad feeling, or it can be a huge problem which erupts into a huge office-wide argument. Those are either ends of the workplace conflict spectrum, with several other points in-between.
According to Wikipedia, workplace conflict can be defined as follows:
“Organisation conflict, or workplace conflict, is a state of discord caused by the actual or perceived opposition of needs, values and interests between people working together”.
As you can see, sometimes it isn’t that anything has actually happened, it can be a total misunderstanding and a perceived problem. This is what makes solving conflict a little tricky.
Despite that, workplace conflict is more common than you might think. A study by CIPD in 2015 showed that 28% of UK employees experienced conflict at work that particular year.
That’s just over a quarter!
Check out this video which defines workplace conflict in a little more detail.
8 Common Causes of Conflict in The Workplace
What can cause conflict in the workplace?
Everything and anything!
It could be that an employee is feeling a little sensitive because of something that is going on in their home life and as a result, they accidentally snap at a colleague around the boardroom table. That colleague takes offence and there is bad feeling there from that point onwards. It really can be that simple.
However, there are certain workplace situations which are known to incite a slightly higher risk of conflict in the workplace. It pays to be aware of these so, as a manager, you can ensure these situations aren’t becoming an issue. By doing that, you can do your best to reduce the risk of conflict occurring in the first place.
The top 8 causes of office conflict are:
- Poor management within the office - Is staff feel like they’re not being managed and led correctly, they’re going to become annoyed quite easily. As a result, they’re confused, unclear on what they need to do and frustrated. This can cause friction with management and it might also lower morale to the point where it forces employees to effectively turn on one another.
- Unfair or unnecessary treatment of one or more employees - If staff feel like they’re being treated unfairly, either as a group or individually, it’s going to cause bad feeling. This is the very first step towards a conflict occurring.
- Job roles are unclear - Without clear guidelines on job roles and responsibilities, morale starts to tumble. When this happens discord can occur, staff may feel that they’re being given too much work versus the workload of another person and again, this is a breeding ground for possible conflict.
- A lack of training - It’s important to include conflict resolution as part of your regular training for staff. Without this, whilst employees are adults and know how to treat each other, it could be that they don’t have the tools and skills to mediate a problem or side-step it. A lack of such training can be the reason for conflicts occurring. However, it could also be that staff feel they’re lacking in training for their actual job role, which lowers morale and causes a suitable ground for conflict.
- Negative communication - When communication is poor, it’s very easy to misunderstand people and take things the wrong way. This is one of the biggest causes of conflict in the workplace and as such, communication lines need to be clear and open between both management and employees.
- A negative office environment - If you don’t give employees the office furniture they need, if they’re not comfortable at their desks and they find the office design in general to be lacking and substandard, you’re looking at a clear risk of conflict.
- A lack of equality - Everything must be equal in order to ensure that employees don’t feel that one person is being favoured over another. When this happens, employees can easily turn on each other and on management, questioning why opportunities aren’t equal and why certain staff seem to be favoured. Ensure everyone is treated the same.
- A lack of action if bullying is an issue - Harassment and bullying have no place in a working environment and as a business, you need to have a zero-tolerance policy on this.
Check out this infographic which highlights some very shocking statistics about workplace bullying and harassment.
Source - https://www.citation.co.uk/news/hr-and-employment-law/bullying-and-harassment-in-the-workplace/
5 Detrimental Effects of Allowing Conflict in The Workplace to Become Out of Hand
It can be very easy to simply bury your head in the sand and hope that the problem goes away, whether you’re the person in the middle of it or you’re a manager who is supposed to be dealing with it. However, adopting that viewpoint actually increases the chance of the conflict rumbling on for far longer.
In that case, the best-case scenario is that it stays as it is, but even then you’re risking reducing morale to a bare minimum. Colleagues will stop collaborating quite so well around the modern boardroom tables and there will be definite fractions between sections of the office. This doesn’t bode well for productivity or the working environment in general.
The worst-case scenario is that the conflict turns into an all-out office argument which pulls everyone in and causes people to take sides. Again, this is a huge problem.
So, if you need any more excuses to avoid simply letting a conflict continue in the way it is, here are 5 detrimental effects of conflict over a period of time.
- Conflicts cause morale to dip - Even if the conflict is a small one, morale can easily drop and that affects almost everything, including productivity and profitability. In addition, it’s going to be difficult for you to keep your employees because they’re going to move away in order to find a more harmonious working situation. Of course, word will get around and you might also find it hard to recruit new staff too.
- Productivity falls at the same time as morale - Productivity will almost certainly fall as a result of conflict in the workplace. The working environment isn’t particularly conducive to enjoyment or hard work, and as morale falls, productivity goes with it.
- A lack of trust and respect for management - It’s not difficult to be aware of when a conflict is raging, so if management doesn’t do anything about it, existing employees are quickly going to lose trust and respect for those in charge. This means that morale and productivity quickly fall too.
- Poor working relationships - Conflicts cause employees to take sides and this can tear an office apart. You could be sat next to someone at your designer office desk and suddenly you’re no longer talking to them because of what has happened. This drastically affects the quality of working being produced within the office and morale once again.
- An increase in sickness due to stress - Conflicts are stressful and unpleasant. When stress is evidence and increasing within an office environment, you might find that sickness levels due to stress rise. This affects productivity and might even contribute to the conflict because extra work is being given to employees as a result. Of course, it’s also very detrimental to your employee who are off sick, as we all know how dangerous stress can be.
Can Workplace Conflict Ever be Healthy or Useful?
If you think about workplace stress, there are two sides to the story. On the one hand, a little stress can be useful because it’s a motivating factor, but too much is damaging. So, can a little conflict be useful, or is it always bad?
In some cases, a little conflict can be healthy within a contemporary office environment, but you need to be sure that it doesn’t get out of hand! In many ways, minor conflicts are just differences of opinion and exploring opinions which are different to your own can help you to become more open-minded and more creative, approaching problems with a different mind-set. Provided the conflict doesn’t turn into something negative, a slight difference of opinion and debate over it can help your employees to learn and grow.
Check out this video which explains about the possible healthy side of conflict in a bit more detail.
The Importance of Conflict Resolution Training
Both employees and managers need to have some form of conflict resolution training. Obviously, managers need to have a more in-depth form, but this training is vital for giving the tools required to learn how to deal with conflict in the workplace in a successful way.
For employees, this could be given at induction and perhaps on a regular basis, in line with annual training. This doesn’t need to be a long-winded session, simply an awareness of conflict, what to do if it arises, and how to side-step major problems.
For instance, employees who are in the middle of a conflict could be taught how to deal with anger in the moment, how to walk away and use breathing exercises to calm themselves down. Then, when they’re feeling calmer and more together, to discuss the problem with their colleague in a calm and professional way, perhaps even learning to agree to disagree.
It might sound simple, but actually calming yourself down when you’re angry can be tough. By teaching your employees calming exercises to use when emotions are high, you might be able to actually side-step a certain amount of workplace conflict.
For managers, managing conflict in the workplace needs to be a little more in-depth, perhaps with meditation training thrown in.
At the end of the day however, anyone who is in the middle of a workplace conflict simply wants to be listened to and have their views acknowledged. You can break conflict resolution down to its most simple level and come out of the entire experience with a positive outcome.
How to deal with team conflict in the workplace doesn’t have to be super-complicated, it really comes down to treating individuals with the respect and acknowledgement they require and coming to a suitable settlement point for all.
What Conflict Resolution Skills Should a Supervisor/Manager Have?
In our next section, we’re going to move towards the practical side of things and give you some techniques and pointers to remember when managing conflict in the workplace. For now, however, what specific skills do you need as a supervisor or manager, in order to be able to deal with such problems?
- High-quality communication skills
- The ability to really listen and not just hear the words
- Impartiality - You should never take sides
- The ability to discuss a problem without judgement
- Careful choice of words to avoid criticism
- The ability to put your opinion to one side
On that list, we mentioned the ability to listen. You might think that’s an easy one to tick off the list, but real listening is actually harder than you might think. Check out this video which talks about the ability to really listen to what is and isn’t being communicated to you.
In the end, the outcome of the conflict should be at the forefront of your mind, and not the actual problem. Sure, you need to address whatever has caused the issue, but you also need to work towards a peaceful and happy solution for all involved, quickly and without drama.
15 Tips For Resolving Conflict in The Workplace
Every conflict is different, so there is no uniform way to resolve conflicts in the workplace. However, there are some ways you can adopt to every conflict you come into contact with, which will help you arrive at a satisfactory outcome.
1 - Work to guide those involved and not simply come up with a quick solution
We mentioned a little earlier that the outcome should be at the forefront of your mind, but it’s not your specific role to actually decide on the outcome most of the time. As a manager, you should mediate and therefore help your employees discuss and come to a solution which suits everyone. This means guiding the discussion and being the one to calm things down when perhaps they get a little heated.
Do not simply tell people what to do and expect that to be the end of the matter - guide and help.
2 - Stay neutral at all times
You cannot take sides. If you take sides your credibility has gone and the rest of the office is going to resent you for it. Remain impartial and guide the conversation, without saying who is right and who is wrong.
It can be hard to do this, especially if you have strong opinions, but unless there is a disciplinary issue at hand, it’s not your role to distribute blame.
3 - Have a calm down area
Breakout spaces are ideal for many different purposes but equipping a particular space away from the main work area with booths, beanbags, comfortable tub chairs and space dividers means that you can give your employees somewhere to go when perhaps passions during collaborative sessions are running a little high.
In many ways, having a chill-out space such as this might be enough to actually avoid a conflict from occurring.
4 - Have clear team boundaries
Most conflicts occur within teams, i.e. in collaborative sessions between one or more team members. Having a clear set of goals for the team can help, but also a set of boundaries which respects every member. Make these clear to everyone and allow people to contribute their own boundaries to create an inclusive space.
5 - Encourage communication
A positive working atmosphere means the ability to communicate clearly and easily. This also means that employees feel they’re able to talk to their manager or supervisor without judgement or problems.
Have an open-door policy within your office, so that employees can approach you whenever they feel they need to. In addition, encourage a team working, collaborative atmosphere, to strengthen working relationships.
6 - Try FUSION
FUSION is an acronym which helps you with conflict resolution in the workplace.
F - Focus (on the problem at hand)
U - Understand (all viewpoints)
S - Specific (be specific about what each side wants and needs)
I - I (speak in ‘I’, or the first person, and not ‘we’ or ‘they’)
O - Open (be open to all solutions)
N - No blame (avoid argumentative language or blaming)
Memorising this acronym could help you to deal with conflicts as they arise.
7 - Look for signs of conflict
Sometimes conflict brews under the surface before it actually blows up, and in that cas,e you need to look for signs that something might not be quite right. This could be productivity drops, employees seeming to be a little unhappier, less creative ideas coming your way around the boardroom furniture, etc.
Be mindful of what is going on in your office space and learn to look for possible signs of conflict going on beneath the surface.
8 - Learn to listen without being bias
A little earlier we mentioned the importance of learning to really listen and not just hear the words. In addition, you need to learn to listen and avoid bias. This can be difficult because it’s natural to take a viewpoint which leans more towards one person than the other, e.g your own personal point of view. However, your point of view doesn’t really come into it at this point, you need to listen to what is being said to you and find a useful piece of middle ground.
Learning to push any bias away is difficult and takes time to learn, but as a manager, it’s a very important skill.
9 - Have a clear policy on conflict resolution
Whilst one conflict is never the same as another, it’s a good idea to have a policy which outlines what to do if you feel conflict is reaching the point where it cannot be dealt with by the people involved, at the source.
Everyone should have access to this policy and there should be a clear course of action to take, e.g. who to report to. This will cut down on the amount of time a conflict might be left brewing before action is taken to clear it up.
10 - See the positive sides
Whilst conflict isn’t something you really want to happen in your office space and of course, you want your employees sitting at their designer office chairs to be happy and getting along well, you should see conflict as a positive if it does happen.
Because it’s a learning curve.
Overcoming a conflict will give you information on things that perhaps need to change to avoid the same thing happening again, and it will also help you hone your conflict management skills in the workplace for future use. Always look towards the positive side as much as possible and you will find that the entire situation will be over far quicker as a result.
11 - Learn to avoid reacting and instead, respond
It’s very easy to jump into a reaction and then think later, but your initial reaction could be a catalyst for a worsening situation. When managing conflict in the workplace, learn to wait before you say anything and respond, rather than reacting with the first thing that pops into your mind.
For instance, if an employee comes to you and explains a conflict that is occurring in the office, it’s easy to quickly say “oh for goodness sake” and roll your eyes, but that’s actually making your employee feel like their conflict isn’t important, that it’s silly and not worth your time. That’s not the ideal way to handle the situation! Instead, nod and say “okay, tell me what’s happening”.
12 - Use team-building exercises
A strong team will still have the odd disagreement or misunderstanding from time to time but they will have a connection which means they’re not likely to allow this to turn into a major conflict. Strengthening working relationships means allowing your employees to bond, so how about team-building exercises?
Check out this infographic which talks about some of the team-building exercises used by the biggest companies on the planet.
Source - https://www.thedailystar.net/next-step/career-advice/unusual-team-building-exercises-famous-companies-1426027?
Strong working relationships can help to reduce stress whilst also boosting productivity. To this aim, try and create an innovative working environment too, as this will help to boost morale and therefore increase job satisfaction. Think about the general office design and look towards trendy office furniture, zones for quiet and collaborative work, and plentiful break areas too.
13 - Be mindful of the language you’re using
Good conflict resolution tips in the workplace tend to revolve around communication. Be careful of the language you’re using when talking to employees involved in a conflict, or when you’re involved in one and you’re trying to overcome the situation. Inflammatory language can come out of your mouth without you actually realising, e.g. blame remarks or sarcasm. Be careful and think before you speak. This will help to diffuse the situation far more easily and help you deal with the situation more effectively.
14 - Work towards the outcome, but took for the actual heart of the problem
Whilst you should always concentrate on getting to the bottom of the problem and handling it to completion, you should also be mindful of any root cause which might happen again. By doing this, you’re also helping to avoid the situation recurring. So, have one eye on the outcome, and the other on asking yourself whether this issue is likely to crop up again in the future. By being mindful of this, you can change working practices or put into place new mechanisms to avoid repetition.
15 - Don’t forget to calm the waters after a conflict
Many managers simply sort the problem out and that’s it, it’s never spoken of again. however, you have to stop and think about the ripple effect and whether it’s going to cause productivity to dip at any point.
After a conflict, make sure you calm the waters by reassuring everyone that all is well, discussing the problem openly if necessary and reiterating that your door is always open for anyone who has any problems or wants to discuss anything.
These 15 tips won’t completely solve the problem of course, but by combining them, you can work towards resolving workplace conflicts in an easier and more effective way.
Nobody wants to be embroiled in a conflict, but occasionally these things happen. People misunderstand one another, disagree, can’t quite understand, and it could also be the case that someone is simply feeling a little stressed or under the weather and they snap when they don’t mean to, therefore causing a problem to snowball.
This is part and parcel of life, both outside of the workplace and within it. However, when you’re working with an office environment, productivity has to remain high and conflicts can certainly affect the big P if allowed to do so.
As a manager, it is part of your job to be able to deal with workplace conflict in a positive and swift way. As an employee, you are also responsible for trying to handle small issues and diffuse them at the source. When we all know what we’re responsible for and how to handle it, conflicts are usually no more than small storms in teacups.