Workplace conflict. No matter how well-organized your teams are, how talented your staff is, or how much effort you've put into creating a positive office culture—you can be 100% sure that disputes will bubble up somewhere.
Conflict between colleagues may be an inevitable symptom of high-pressure work environments (and human nature), but the outcomes don't have to be disastrous.
There are proven ways to minimize the stress and fallout of workplace disputes, and actually get something positive out of the experience.
There are also ways to make them much worse.
Unfortunately, many managers, team leaders (and team members) lack the conflict resolution skills needed to intervene quickly and effectively.
This creates a snowball effect, where negativity flourishes and spreads, taking down good people and polluting the office atmosphere for everyone.
We have all experienced this phenomenon. And the high price of workplace conflict is well documented by human resources researchers and organizational experts.
conflict costs businesses billions each year
A study conducted by CPP Global actually nailed the precise cost of workplace conflict at a staggering $359 billion in paid hours per year (in the US). Where did they get that number from?
It's the estimated 2.8 hours per week people spend dealing with conflicts at work, based on an average hourly earnings of $17.95.
CPP defines conflict as any "workplace disagreement that disrupts the flow of work". Their research reveals that at least 85% of people have been in this situation.
And it's very clear that these disputes are not being handled particularly well. Who's to blame?
The supervisor who doesn't step in? The employee who doesn't know how to voice their complaints productively? A culture of bullying, denial, and cut-throat competition?
Whether you're in a management role already—or hoping to move into one—how you deal with disputes at work says a lot about your potential as a leader.
A little human resources training goes a long way when it comes to effective conflict resolution. Start with these 3 golden rules to handle disputes better.
1. Ignoring conflict is not a "strategy"—it's a bomb waiting to explode
It can be very tempting to turn a blind eye to disputes between team members. Some managers figure employees will hash it out amongst themselves, and there are indeed some cases where this is true.
You don't necessarily need to leap into the fray at the first sign of tension. However, once it comes to your attention that a conflict is mounting, spreading, and not in fact "resolving itself", it's time to acknowledge the problem.
There are several good reasons to take action. At worst, failure to deal with disputes can allow illegal acts to persist—such as verbal, physical, and sexual harassment.
And at the very least, you're telling your team members, loud and clear, that you don't really care about their wellbeing.
Denial of interpersonal problems at work is like a ticking time bomb. Either diffuse those issues early on, or watch them explode with widespread damages down the road.
Chairman of N2Growth and leadership expert, Mike Myatt, said it best when he wrote in Forbes:
"Leadership and conflict go hand-in-hand. Leadership is a full-contact sport, and if you cannot or will not address conflict in a healthy, productive fashion, you should not be in a leadership role."
2. Don't take sides: Show you can be trusted to remain impartial
So, if you're in a leadership role, what's the best way to approach employees embroiled in conflict?
Rule #1 is to be very clear that you're not taking sides. You will have zero credibility if you appear to support one person over another, and could actually spark further conflict by falling into this trap.
You must assume both parties deserve to be heard, and are equally deserving of consideration. Best practice in human resources training says to follow these steps when mediating conflicts:
- set up a quiet space to hold a meeting free from interruptions
- start by meeting with each individual separately
- don't play favourites
- don't get caught up in drama (screaming, name-calling, emotional manipulation)
- make it clear your goal is to find a solution that benefits everyone (you are there to help both parties)
- allow each person to tell their story, and don't allow any one party to dominate the conversation
- listen with equal attention and care to each speaker
- do not issue character judgments, assign blame, or interrupt the speakers
- once together, encourage participants to express their emotions—how the conflict is making them feel—to generate empathy and understand each other's point of view
Once you've created a safe space in which parties can air their concerns and tell their stories, you'll have set the stage for finding a resolution.
Crucially, you'll have proven you care enough to get involved, and have the leaderships skills to do so effectively.
If both parties trust your competence, they'll be much more willing to let down their guards, and work toward a resolution.
3. Put the focus on common goals & mutually beneficial outcomes
As a starting point, you can assume that both parties want to keep their jobs, feel better about coming into work each day, and alleviate the stress they're experiencing from the dispute.
Look for more common goals like these, and make them the focus of your discussion. What can you all agree on? What outcomes would benefit everyone involved? How can you get there?
Let the participants throw out ideas.
This is key: It is not your role to dictate a solution for your team members. It's to facilitate them negotiating and coming up with their own answers to the problem at hand.
Conflict resolution expert, Judy Ringer, explains that this process helps "transform an opponent into a partner for problem-solving."
It's a crucial step in shifting the dynamic, and bringing warring factions together toward a shared goal. Your job is to get the ball rolling, and keep your colleagues on track.
There's no doubt about it: dealing with workplace conflict is one of the tougher aspects of leadership. But, the upsides are undeniable.
You'll send a clear message that you're a compassionate, skilled leader who cares enough to roll up your sleeves and make life better for your employees.
You'll discover who is, and is not, contributing positively to your team, department, or organization. And you'll reduce the well-documented loss of talent, productivity, and money that results from ignoring workplace disputes.
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