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5 Tips For Handling Conflict In The Workplace

In today’s divisive political and social climate, workplace conflict between employees is on the rise. Whether it’s a miscommunication between team members, employees squabbling over differing opinions, or two managers debating how to resolve an issue—disagreements in the workplace are not uncommon.

In fact, a study by CPP, Inc., shows that 85% of employees say they’ve dealt with conflict at work at some point and nearly a third of employees say they face it almost constantly. The challenge, then, is how to handle conflict resolution in your organization—and how to do it in a way that helps maintain a positive, productive work environment.

In many cases, conflict at work can be resolved peacefully without involving a supervisor or the human resources staff. At other times, however, an everyday workplace conflict can escalate and lead to serious issues that require intervention or conflict management.

“Supervisors have to manage conflict and difficult situations the same way they would manage a budget or create a work schedule,” says G&A Partners HR Analyst Karyn Williams, who has more than 20 years’ experience handling employee relations. “Many leaders will tell you that they hate conflict. But many times, that’s what prevents a leader from taking their department to the next level.”

Williams suggests that supervisors assess their level of competency in managing conflict. Be honest in your assessment. Ask yourself: Do I avoid conflict? Do I competently coach staff in managing conflict?

After you’ve identified your gaps, engage in training to help obtain the skills you need for successful conflict management. Then, empower your staff to do the same.

“Encourage and develop staff in managing conflict within the team, both supervisors and staff should feel confident in managing conflict among each other and with customers.”

— G&A Partners HR Analyst, Karyn Williams

Workplace conflict typically stems from underlying issues such as lack of communication, lack of definition for job responsibilities, or undefined processes. When employees experience these issues, they feel stress. The current mental health crisis in the wake of the pandemic is also placing a strain on workers.

When conflict does arise and an employee needs assistance, it’s critical that there are clearly defined internal processes they can follow. Workplace conflicts often escalate when employees are embroiled in conflict and either don’t know what to do next, don’t feel as if they can involve their managers in the dispute, or don’t have any conflict resolution strategies to help de-escalate the situation.

Williams encourages business leaders to create a work environment in which employees feel comfortable asking their managers for help and managers receive basic conflict management training so they feel more equipped and confident to handle conflict when it does arise.

Below are five tips to help front-line employees handle workplace conflicts:

Immediately Address the Issue

Often, a manager’s first response is to delay action when they identify a workplace conflict. The longer a conflict continues, though, the greater the impact it will have on your team’s productivity and morale. Instead of waiting for the animosity to boil over into a confrontation, address conflicts as soon as they arise.

Meet With Employees Who Are Directly Involved

Conflict at work can pull in other employees. As other team members chime in and begin to take sides, what began as a simple disagreement can quickly divide an entire department. When you become aware of a problem, meet separately with only those people who are directly involved in the conflict.

“One of the most powerful tools a leader can have is mediation skills,” Williams says. “To effectively mediate, you need to hear both sides effectively and meet with each person separately so there’s no competition when they are sharing their accounts of what occurred.”

Let Everyone Speak and Use Active Listening Skills

When addressing conflict, supervisors should strive to be impartial and understand all the facts. Active listening aids managers in gathering relevant information, understanding the speaker through reflection and clarification, and retaining information.

Give each person involved the chance to explain their side of the story. Not only will this give your employees a chance to clear the air, but it will also help you get to the root cause of the issue.

Look For Creative Solutions

The goal of conflict management is to prioritize positive results as you resolve disputes, and great managers keep an eye toward positive outcomes.

After you’ve heard all sides of the disagreement, consult your company handbook and identify what, if any, policies are applicable to the situation. Then, consult with a human resources representative for a neutral perspective.

“The HR department can serve as a sounding board and provide recommendations,” says Williams. But don’t rely on human resources to solely handle conflict resolution. Though the HR department can provide guidance, Williams says, managers are closer to the employees and situation and should take responsibility to resolve the issue.

Finally, meet with your employees again, give them your understanding of the situation, and encourage them to look for areas of common ground that can help them come to a compromise. Once you’ve identified possible solutions, provide your employees with next steps. Then, outline what they should do if the conflict arises again and what to do if they can’t resolve the conflict on their own. Include any disciplinary steps that will be taken if the situation doesn’t improve.

Follow Up And Take Action

After your employees have come to an agreement or you’ve outlined a resolution plan, it’s important to follow up with your employees regularly. Many managers fail to take this critical step, which not only builds trust with your employees but also ensures that the conflict doesn’t arise again.

Further action may be needed if the conflict continues, such as scheduling employees for different shifts, moving team members to a different work area, or taking more serious disciplinary action.

While workplace conflict is a possibility in any office, it doesn’t have to derail or negatively impact production or business activities. Utilizing effective conflict resolution strategies, your managers can encourage employees to speak up when issues arise, and they can effectively manage the conflict while maintaining a positive work environment.

How G&A Can Help

G&A Partners offers access to HR experts with years of experience helping businesses develop their employees, improve their workplace cultures, implement new HR processes and procedures, and more. Schedule a consultation with one of our trusted business advisors to learn more.