“Let’s talk it out”: How to handle conflict in the workplace
Interviews / Opinions

“Let’s talk it out”: How to handle conflict in the workplace

“People are annoying.”

Liz Kislik, a management consultant and business coach, believes that conflict wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for these annoying people who seem to be unable to control themselves. But that’s the easiest part of the story. She supports that when we operate based on this belief, conflict persists and causes more damage. So if we want to solve conflict in the workplace, we need to see what lies beneath this conflict.

According to Kislik, instead of blaming the people involved in a conflict and just expecting them to get things right, we need to examine the root of the issue that causes unproductive conflict.

But let’s further explore what conflicts at work might look like through an example.

Clara’s team was amazing, with one exception. Ben usually had a bad attitude. He was often negative during team meetings, didn’t engage in teamwork, and was arrogant overall. Clara tried to motivate, encourage, and support Ben, with no results whatsoever.

Soon, there was a big disagreement between Ben and another colleague. Employees working at the nearby desks stopped their tasks to figure out why there were people shouting at each other. The vibe in the office was tense, productivity was put on pause, and people felt uncomfortable. Clara went there, tried to calm the two employees, and asked them to follow her to her office. She explained to each one how such conflict in the workplace is not accepted and gave them a verbal warning.

But shortly after that, another dispute occurred. She knew she had to do more than just warn her team members.

Even if conflict is inevitable, it should not be something to fear. People are different, and their motives, processes, goals, and communication ways might vary. These can cause misunderstandings, closed-mindedness, and passive-aggressive behavior. But when conflicts are properly resolved, they can bring good change to your organization.

Conflicts should never be taken lightly or ignored.

Stop the war: How to handle conflict in the workplace

How not to handle conflicts

One way of handling conflict is… not handling it.

In other words, not taking any particular action and just assuming or hoping things will get better over time. Or, downgrading its impact and sweeping things under the rug. Avoidance seems the easy way out. But it’s not the best solution.

According to a recent survey, 4.6% of respondents said that avoidance is their go-to style with conflict, and in another study, 67% of employees did all they could to avoid a colleague with whom they had disagreed. People tend to avoid discussing frustrations and concerns when things are calm. But when discomfort doesn’t get addressed, employees are like ticking bombs ready to explode, and blurt it all out angrily. Trying to avoid an argument altogether might seem like a less stressful option, but it usually raises tension and resentments, and bigger arguments can take place.

Being defensive can create bigger problems in the long run and not help you with how to handle conflict in the workplace, as conflicts among your teams will continue to grow and hurt your business.

According to a study by Randstad US, avoiding conflict resolution can lead to 58% of workers quitting a job because of disruptive workplace policies, 38% wanting to quit because they don’t fit in such cultures, and 86% of potential new hires didn’t apply to organizations with poor workforce reviews. Also, according to a CIPD study, mishandled conflicts can result in 27% personal attacks and insults, 25% absence and sick days, and 9% failure of projects.

Conflict might arise in the workplace because employees have a different POV, or because they communicate differently. Sometimes when people spend a lot of time together, they heavily depend on one another to complete a task, or have high expectations that have not been communicated from the beginning, and that might lead to arguments.

Conflict will happen, no matter what. But when employees are able to discuss challenging topics in an inclusive and supportive manner, new ideas emerge, and collaboration is fostered. Good communication in a peaceful setting allows people to share their thoughts without fear, anger, or disrespect.

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How to handle conflict in the workplace in 7 steps

Conflict in the workplace can prove beneficial if employees, managers, and leaders learn how to successfully deal with them. Below you will discover how to handle conflict in the workplace.

1. Be proactive

A great way to resolve conflict in the workplace is to try and prevent it from happening in the first place. You should pinpoint and evaluate areas where conflict may arise and intervene before it occurs. And if conflict has already happened even if you’ve been proactive, it is certain that it’ll be less long and severe.

Be aware of any natural tensions that take place in the workplace environment and discover how you can minimize or eliminate them. For instance, if your sales team doesn’t work well with the marketing team, conflicts between team members might easily burst. Any great leader will be able to identify this and will try to invest in team bonding between the departments in order to eliminate the possibility of conflict.

Pro tip: To ensure great team collaboration, facilitate team bonding activities that allow people from different departments and backgrounds to interact. When employees have positive work relations, it is less likely for them to dispute.

2. Establish clear policies for acceptable behavior

Assuming that employees understand acceptable behaviors in the workplace is a big pitfall. Sometimes the lines between what’s acceptable and what’s not are quite blurry, leading to confusion and misunderstanding. So, a best practice for properly handling conflict in the workplace is to set clear policies of what is and what isn’t acceptable. Reinforce these policies to new hires and remind existing employees frequently of what you expect from them.

In the case of remote and hybrid employees, it might be even trickier to set clear expectations. Thus, you should thoroughly explain proper workplace behavior and make sure it’s being followed by offering remote training strategies (with the help of microlearning, gamification, peer-to-peer sessions, or other remote training solutions), scheduling virtual discussions, 1:1 sessions, and online surveys. Include such policies in your employee handbook, and review them as and when needed. Finally, ask all employees to sign an agreement that they understand and accept such policies.

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3. Amplify straightforward communication

It’s set in stone—clear and effective communication is absolutely essential to all parts of your organization. And with no exception in conflict management. Lack of communication can lead to a series of problems among your teams. For instance, one of your people might not have understood the proper behavior policy at work because it wasn’t communicated effectively by administration, or they might misinterpret a colleague’s intentions. Thus, it’s more than necessary to train employees and managers on how to communicate properly with each other in the workplace.

Don’t forget your remote and hybrid workers. Poor communication is more frequent in remote environments as the lack of (or poor) interaction could lead to greater conflicts. Boost virtual communication with the right solutions. Be cautious while sending DMs or emails not to lose out on tone. And teach your teams to respond within a reasonable time.

Pro tip: Encourage and teach your remote people to use online communication tools, making sure they follow the proper digital communication etiquette.

4. Be careful with timing

You wouldn’t want to try and resolve a conflict while it’s still boiling up. Timing matters in such cases. Instead, give time for things to cool down and then communicate with the involved parties separately. Upset people aren’t rational when making decisions, neither do they have a clear mind to see why things went wrong.

Think about this—engaging angry or frustrated employees in a mediation session can quickly escalate the conflict. What you want is to resolve any issues, and for you to succeed in this, you need the people involved to be calm and collected. Give them time. The conflict resolution can wait for a while.

5. Invest in conflict management training

Training on how to manage conflict in the workplace is mandatory and shouldn’t be ignored by any organization. Conflict in the work environment is a huge issue that needs to be addressed by leaders, managers, and employees. By offering the proper training to all employees, you raise awareness of conflict and how it can be deflected.

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Leadership training: Sometimes, leaders don’t have the experience or skills to make conflict resolution easier. They might even be rather avoidant when conflicts arise. It’s essential that you offer targeted conflict training management to facilitate resolution best practices.

For distributed teams, train leaders on how to manage employees in remote work settings and specifically give them solutions when it comes to common remote-work-related conflicts. Don’t assume they have the know-how to deal with such situations. Instead, offer training on topics like workplace discrimination, DEI, harassment, etc. These topics will give them a well-rounded approach to understanding why and how conflicts may arise. This way, they’ll be able to better handle any tensions in the workplace.

Employee training: Be it new hires or existing employees, training on conflict resolution is essential for everyone in your teams. Besides leadership and management guidelines, employees need to know for themselves how to pinpoint any rising tensions and how to address them. And even before discovering more about conflict resolution, it’s important for them to be aware of business etiquette, diversity, discrimination, and harassment policies at work so they know how to behave in the workplace and avoid misunderstandings.

In a few words, what you train your leaders for, train your employees, too.

6. Don’t forget the WIIFM factor

“What’s in it for me?” is a big factor that helps leaders deal with employee conflict. Employees need to know how things might personally affect them—what they have to win or lose in any situation. And this plays a massive role in their overall motivation to avoid conflict and give their best self.

Let your people know about the benefits your organization offers for good manners in a clear and meaningful way. Allow them to discover the (personal and professional) advantages good behavior offers them.

7. Use conflict to grow

Conflict in the workplace is always an opportunity for growth. Disagreements (when handled correctly) are very healthy and play a big role in your company’s development. They help your teams bond and learn through sharing ideas.

So, when in conflict, turn it into a positive experience and ask yourself or your employees, “What could be learned from this conflict?” “How can we prevent this in the future?”. It’s important to ask the right questions and help your people learn and grow. Every situation in the workplace can be an opportunity to become better and bring more success overall.

Make friends, not war

Different voices from people coming from various social and cultural backgrounds are a true treasure for your organization. Brainstorming, critical thinking, and decision-making can become an amazing experience for your employees when they share different ideas, viewpoints, talents, skills, and opinions.

What you need to do is allow them to speak up and share their concerns or different views in a healthy and supportive environment. Conflict can occur even in the healthiest workplaces, so preparing the work environment accordingly can give the support and reassurance your teams need to bloom and succeed.

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