6 Tips to Handle Employee Conflict in the Workplace
Conflict is expensive. It leads to employees who, instead of working, are participating, avoiding, or trying to manage pointless conflicts with others.
CPP Inc. (the company that publishes the Myers-Briggs Assessment) conducted a 2008 study on workplace conflict and found that employees spend about 2.1 hours a week (i.e. a day a month!) simply dealing with conflict. In dollars, that comes to about $359 billion if you consider paid hours, or about 385 million working days.
It gets worse.
25% of employees questioned for the study said that workplace conflict led to sickness and absenteeism. 9% blamed conflict for outright project failure. 33% said conflict led to employees leaving, either by quitting or by being fired.
Let’s not forget the other costs: customers who notice the conflict and complain or take their business elsewhere because of the war among your staff.
Trained employees are expensive to replace. Lost customers and sales are irreplaceable.
How To Deal With Conflict
Obviously, you can’t let conflict fester. You have to deal with it or you’re going to pay the costs I just mentioned. So what do you do?
1. Recognize the conflict.
If you think you have no problems with conflict in your team, you’re in denial. The first thing you need to do is recognize conflict.
Take Burt, for example.
Burt thought he was a people person. He loved the idea of everyone getting along, and spent an inordinate amount of time “mentoring” and “teaching” employees to be unified during long-winded meetings. He did little else as far as workload; he thought his entire job was to serve as cheerleader. He thought he was able to read people well, and had no idea that his management style was actually creating conflict. Why didn’t he recognize the problem?
- Many people avoid confrontation. Passive aggressive conflict is tough to nail down. Many people hate confrontation and instead of going to someone directly and speaking plainly about a problem (in this case, to their manager, Burt), they talk about the issue to others or behind backs. When faced with the opportunity to speak plainly to the person in question, they often put on a false face of everything being fine. This is especially so if they are dealing with upper management and fear job reprisals.
- We can’t imagine we’re to blame. Part of Burt’s problem is that he thought he was being helpful. He was talking about unity, after all, but wasn’t actually taking actions that would foster it. In fact, his lack of reliable leadership in other areas, and a general tendency to pass of work to employees, made unity impossible. Burt couldn’t see the problem because he was the problem.
- We’re using band aids instead of surgery. Conflict is a tricky thing; it can’t be covered over because it still festers beneath the surface. It must be identified and removed, and if this has never happened in the past, new conflicts will pop up but be unseen. They’ll be hidden under the programs, activities, and procedures we’ve established that we think resolve conflict when in reality they merely manage it without removing it. Burt thought talking and promoting unity would do the trick, and on the surface it seemed to. Everyone was all smiles and agreeable in the meetings. What happened outside of the meetings was a different story.
- Harassment and bullying are hard to see. As an owner or manager, you’re likely not privy to the day-to-day activities that your employees experience. Harassment and bullying, whether through words, passive aggressive behavior, or physical action, are hard to spot. Some of it is so subtle that you won’t be sure if it’s real (e.g. purposefully looking away or not listening when an employee is speaking, resuming interest when they are done). Most of it won’t happen when you are around. Employees who are on the receiving end of it may be scared to report it to you.
So how do you identify conflict?
- Watch for conflict markers. Look for drops in productivity and sales, or increases in customer complaints during particular shifts or with specific departments. Watch for increase in sick leave or employees juggling shifts to avoid other specific employees. Look for teams unable to meet deadlines or work well together. Look for body language that signals disrespect during meetings when others are talking.
- Learn employee language. By this I mean that you must understand how employees communicate on an individual level, relying not only on verbal communication, but also body language. Observe (without spying) your employees. See how they are reacting, avoiding, connecting, and being. What do they say to each other?
- Communicate regularly. Take your employee’s complaints seriously. Even those petty issues can develop into huge problems over time. Give them a safe place to voice concerns privately and as a group. Make informal one-on-one conversation a regular habit. Hold department meetings regularly so the larger group can voice concerns. There’s safety in numbers, and this may be the best way your employees can indicate conflict with management.
- Watch for stress. The CPP study found that stress and heavy workloads account for over 60% of conflict. Look for stress points in projects or expectations. Reducing workload and even giving employees extra breaks or vacation days can help reduce stress and the conflict that comes with it.
- Keep an eye on management. The CPP study revealed that 29% of employees see conflict coming from poor leadership within the organization. Make sure your management is treating everyone fairly by following the rules and guidelines effectively and reliably. Make sure they are working as hard as they expect your employees to work. Make sure you give employees a chance to come to you to alert you to problems with management, and let them know you’ll take them seriously. Remember Burt? He was a classic case of management creating conflict among his team, and his team was unable to tell…their manager. There are few things worse for employees than a manager whom the boss loves who is creating conflict; they know nothing will be done about it and so they stay silent.
- Keep an eye on toxic employees. Some people seem to have conflict wherever they go. If it’s clear you have an employee who tends to be surrounded by conflict no matter what position or job they are given, keep an eye on them and the employees they work with. Be on the lookout for any hint of a problem. Talk to them about repeated issues, and give them an opportunity to improve or to get training or coaching. If the problem persists, you may need to take disciplinary action.
2. Privately bring employees together.
Bring the conflicting employees together. Never handle it in front of others or you’re merely making things worse by causing someone to lose face or be open to further ridicule.
Once you have the conflicting parties together, acknowledge that you know there is a problem. Let them know what the purpose of the meeting will be, which is:
- Defining the problem so that all agree on it.
- A chance to talk things out so both sides can understand each other.
- Determining together what caused the problem, and what is needed to avoid it in the future.
- Finding common areas where all parties can agree.
- Deciding together on what needs to happen.
- Laying out follow-up actions or the monitoring measures you’ll be taking to make sure the problem is truly solved.
Most importantly, you need to let them know that the problem ends today, and that if no resolution seems to be possible, you will take other measures (e.g. outside arbitration, coaching, training, or disciplinary action).
3. Make each employee consider the other.
It’s important that conflicting parties learn to see the other’s point of view in an empathetic way. You cannot resolve conflict well by merely laying down the law and saying one is right and the other is wrong. Resolution comes best when each party is allowed to save a bit of face while also giving in.
In other words, find compromise.
You can do this by having each party:
- Restate the other’s position. Insist that each party restate the other’s position clearly, and that they must continue to attempt doing so until the other party agrees that they have clearly stated their position. This helps both parties understand what the other is feeling.
- Offer a solution along with their complaint. Insist that all complaints or problems are welcome to be raised, but that a solution must also be offered at the same time. This gives them a chance to understand what it is to be you, what it is they really want, and to get to the real problem at hand.
- Keep the conversation on the problem, not on personal attacks. While each employee must be allowed to state their feelings, never allow personal attacks. Watch the words, language, and method of discussion as you get two conflicting parties to talk about the problem. They may express what they felt and experience, but not in negative terms directed at the other person.
- Avoid bringing others into the conflict. If one suggests that others feel the same way, inform them that you will speak to them if necessary but that right now, the issues is between those present in the room. It’s too easy to say “I’m not the only one” (which may be true, since the others are avoiding confrontation) to build ground support. If this is brought up, indicate you’ll speak with the others privately, too.
- Stay in the room until resolution is reached. If now is the time you are dealing with the conflict, then now is the time to resolve it. Make it clear the problem ends now, and that however that looks like is up to them.
4. Make better hiring decisions.
You can avoid conflict by being smarter about hiring. You can reduce it before it gets started.
- Consider using personality tests. The CPP study found that most of the conflict experienced in the workplace has to do with clashes between different personalities and egos (49%). Forget the whole opposites attract myth; people who are similar work better together. While you don’t want a team made up of all of the same personality, knowing which employees might struggle with others and when can help you avoid setting up bad situations or partnerships.
- Don’t hire bad apples. It’s impossible to predict which people are likely to cause conflict, but you can do some digging to get an idea. What kind of questions do you ask potential hires? Do you ask why they left their last job? If they liked their co-workers there? Be wary of answers that blame others for problems, or suggest that anything that went wrong was someone else’s fault.
- Call their references. Follow up on a potential hire’s references. Call previous employers. Do a bit of digging to see if there was a conflict behind their reason to leave the previous job.
- Try a recruiting software. Applicant tracking and recruiting tools make it easier to find, interview and hire new employees in one platform.
5. Get additional training.
If you don’t think you’re very good at handling conflict, do something about it. Get professional training in conflict resolution.
Conflict resolution is a must-have quality if you are a leader!
Your employees expect you to manage conflict. It’s not an option to let it slide and hope it resolves itself. The CPP study found that 70% of employees thought managing conflict was critically important to successful leadership. 54% thought managers could do a better job by addressing initial tensions right away rather than letting them build.
But it isn’t all on you.
Give your employees the skills and tools to use on their own, and include conflict resolution training as a part of meetings or other regular training programs. Get those skills out on the front lines.
6. Make conflict resolution part of your handbook.
Your employee handbook should outline your expectations on employee behavior clearly. Let them know what is acceptable and what isn’t, including the areas of gossip, bullying, respect, and privacy.
Be sure to outline your system for dealing with conflict so that employees who are experiencing it know what they are to do. Let them know who to talk to, and what to expect. Provide them a method for dealing with conflicts with managers or team leaders.
Conflict, both in life and in work, is inevitable.
We are always going to be dealing with people who have different personalities, approaches, and ideas than ours. Some of your employees have a good set of conflict resolution skills of their own, but not everyone does and not every situation is manageable without outside help.
Be proactive about conflict, never letting it grow out of control.
Try to find a way to harness conflict and turn it into a positive force. When handled properly, employees who were previously in conflict with each other may, after resolution, have a new respect for each other and themselves. They may be able to understand their own behavior and the behavior of others, and that is an employee well-equipped to resolve conflicts on their own in the future.