By Merry Monteleone
Conflict at work is inevitable. Whether it leads to a positive team building experience or negative consequences hinges on your expertise in handling it.
“10% of conflicts are due to difference in opinion. 90% are due to wrong tone of voice.”
You can’t avoid conflict entirely.
If your company has more than a few employees, there will be personal and professional conflicts that come into play. When you consider the fact that most employees spend more waking hours at their job than they do anywhere else, you can understand why interpersonal stresses are inevitable.
A good leader takes the initiative to make sure interpersonal conflicts don’t escalate to the point of damaging working relationships or increasing the employee turnover rate. Not all conflicts are that severe, thankfully. But all conflicts should be taken seriously to maintain the careful balance of a positive company culture.
According to some studies, the average employee spends nearly three hours per week on conflict. That’s a lot of wasted time and it can have a lasting impact on the way your business functions. As a leader, your conflict resolution skills are critical to the team’s success and your employees’ job satisfaction.
Managing Conflict: Understanding the Root Cause of Issues
There can be any number of reasons for tensions to flare in the workplace. For leadership, picking out the root cause from any number of symptoms can be the most difficult part of the process. Office politics can be couched in gossip and manipulation. The point of contention may never be openly stated, or at least not honestly stated.
You’re going to have team members who have disputes, large and small. This doesn’t have to be completely negative. In fact, it can be a healthy part of discourse in business. Handled well, conflicts can even bring out the better qualities in all the employees concerned, so it’s important that you know when to step in. If you wait until the tension has boiled so high that it impacts other staff, it may be too late to effectively curtail the damage.
Here are a few of the most common causes of conflict:
Poor communication is one of the most common causes of workplace conflict. The problem is that not everyone communicates in the same way, and all staff members might not understand the best way to convey information to specific people. This is a high-level communication skill that not everyone has mastered, which is why management should keep an eye on these types of small disputes to find workarounds and help with team building. Acknowledge differences in communication needs and styles and model good communication practices for your team. For example, remind your back-office staff that the front-line customer service team may not be able to respond to internal email requests until the end of the day, so face-to-face communication may be the best way to get urgent answers during busy times.
Disputes over resources or responsibilities can arise from a lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities. Sometimes these conflicts arise from territorial disputes. In the best case scenario, two parties are trying to perform their duties to a high level, inadvertently getting in each other’s way. To avoid these issues, make sure that responsibilities, decision-making authority and expectations around support from other teams are clearly defined and known by everyone that a project impacts.
Competition and plain old envy come into play in a professional environment, even on the same team. Everyone on your staff has aspirations for higher earnings and positions, or they should. This unspoken goal often pits colleagues against each other in subtle, and sometimes glaringly obvious, ways. Don’t allow healthy aspirations and professional competition to turn into personal grievances. Make sure there are clear measures of success tied to staff rewards, and be prepared to clearly communicate the cause and effect behind management decisions. You might not feel like you should have to explain your decisions, but that transparency will help everyone understand what is required to excel in your workplace.
Determining When and How to Step In
A great manager can turn these scenarios into a team building experiences that foster growth for employees. A poor manager might not address the issues at all.
If you’re trying to let employees work it out themselves, that can be a big mistake. A very negative conflict can fester until it costs productivity. In the worst case, it can sour key staff members on the workplace environment.
There are a number of ways to handle conflicts. Often it’s a matter of opening the lines of communication between the parties and working to address their individual issues. Sometimes two employees just don’t work well together. If you move to separate their work environments, make certain that you’re listening to both sides and taking their thoughts into consideration so neither feels punished through the solution.
Leadership and management skills take time and effort to develop. Ongoing education is a key component in success for many business leaders. Our courses in Conflict Management and Dealing with Difficult People can help you gain clarity as you address difficulties within your own teams and groups of colleagues.
Merry Monteleone is a freelance writer from the Chicagoland area. Her specialties include web content, blog writing, and video scripts. Merry works across numerous industries. Her favorites include business, legal, healthcare, and IT.
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