Successful companies need a mix of people and personalities to thrive. Fresh perspectives bring new ideas, ways of working, and skills. Author Steve Goodier summed this up when he said, “We don't get harmony when everybody sings the same note. Only notes that are different can harmonize. The same is true with people.”
But there is a cost to differences of personality and opinion as they can sometimes risk or result in conflict. This is something managers and companies want to avoid as a study by CPP estimated that workplace conflict costs the US $359 billion each year. Perhaps most astonishingly, this equates to every single employee spending an average of over 2 hours per week involved with conflict, so managing conflict well will effectively boost employee productivity and the company's bottom line.
That’s not to say conflict is only a negative thing. It shows that employees are passionate and that they have opinions they’re prepared to stand up for. It can bring fresh perspectives and new ideas. But in order for conflict to be constructive and not just destructive, it needs to be handled well.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled some top tips for managing conflict in the workplace, to get the best out of all your unique, passionate employees.
Accept conflict as a part of the process
The CPP study quoted above found that one in four employees had been sick or absent from work in order to avoid conflict. Most people don’t enjoy dealing with disputes and will go to lengths to avoid it. When this happens, it risks managers falling into a trap of assuming problems aren’t serious and hoping that sparring employees will resolve issues themselves.
That isn’t always the case, and such an approach can lead to even more wasted time. If you accept that conflict is an inevitable part of working life, you will be more prepared to deal with it when it arises.
Tackle trouble early
Even the smallest grievances, if left unchecked, can turn into long-term wars that ravage an office’s morale. The best way to deal with issues, however small, is to identify them and take immediate steps to resolve them.
If you notice that an employee or colleague seems upset with you, find out why. And if you see tensions rising between others in the workplace, consider what you can do to bring it out into the open and avoid long-running disagreements.
Ask questions, and listen
The most important aspect of resolving conflict is to understand both points of view, and it is impossible to do this without asking questions. Often, what appear to be disagreements are merely misunderstandings, and hearing each side of the story can show that, actually, both parties are striving for the same goal.
People rarely do things, especially potentially-disruptive things, without good reason or good intentions. There may be an obvious motivation behind their actions, and understanding this will allow you to determine whether their actions are acceptable. You may even learn new ways of working or receive valuable feedback on your own performance, or that of your business.
Replace accusations and insults with observations and examples
When defending a viewpoint they care passionately about, people can rush to explain and justify themselves, and a by-product of that is using language that comes across as personal and inflammatory.
There’s a subtle difference between “you don’t respect my ideas” and “you often criticise my ideas” - the former assumes a lack of respect and implies a more character-focused attack. Statements like this aren’t verifiable - you can’t be certain if they do or don’t respect your ideas - and are more likely to provoke an impassioned response.
If, instead, you can back up observations with examples, like noting the arrival times of tardy employees rather than merely telling them, “you’re always late”, you present them with evidence that they have to account for, and they can’t dismiss your claims as an assault on their character.
Mediate conflicts between employees
While in an ideal world, employees could resolve conflicts between themselves using these principles, sometimes there are battles that are too bitter to back down from. This is where management intervention can play a crucial role. If you have warring employees whose strife is unsettling the company, play the mediator role for them.
Gather any evidence you need, and then hold a meeting where you get to the bottom of what the conflict is, how it started, and what the opinions of each side are. Keep in mind the end goal of working out how you can all move forwards together. Often opening with positive statements and compliments, especially if exchanged by the conflicting parties (some prompting may be required), can set the tone for more amenable discussions.
With these tips are your disposal, you’ll find it easier to resolve conflict and even use it for constructive purposes to further grow your business.