The workplace can be a breeding ground for conflict. It is inevitable that there will be disagreements and struggles among co-workers and teams. Although conflict and confrontation can have tremendous negative consequences, they aren’t always a bad thing. When handled appropriately, conflict can result in positive outcomes and forge a path for progressive change and problem-resolution.
According to a study published by CPP, Inc. (the same company responsible for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® assessment), 85 percent of employees at all levels experience some degree of conflict in the workplace. In 2008, U.S. employees spent an average of 2.8 hours per week in the throes of a workplace dispute. This equates to about $359 billion in paid hours. In addition to lost productivity, workplace conflict can lead to personal injury, violence, illness and increased absenteeism.
These consequences can have a serious negative impact on employees’ attitudes, relationships and the culture of the organization, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Does this mean that conflict in the workplace should be avoided? Absolutely not. Avoiding confrontation will result in greater problems that escalate and spin out of control quickly. The solution is to accept and acknowledge conflict so it can be understood and better managed when it arises. Taking control of conflict will lead to more positive outcomes, resulting in happier, more productive team members while maintaining a positive culture of wellbeing.
Causes of Conflict
So why does conflict occur? Well, there are several reasons. First, you have many people with different backgrounds, attitudes, personalities and values all working together. It can probably be expected that everyone will get along most of the time, but sometimes those differences can be the cause of the conflict.
Poor communication is another contributor. Lack of communication can occur between team members or on a larger scale, such as between management and their reports. Poor communication can result in uncertainty, gossip and poor teamwork. All of these can severely damage relationships between co-workers and teams as well as create mistrust within the organization.
Finally, another source of workplace conflict is competition. Although some level of healthy competition can encourage employees to enhance their skills and work more effectively, too much, or competition that is managed poorly, can have adverse consequences. For example, employees may try to sabotage or insult one another. Clearly, this can create a hostile workplace that hinders teamwork and collaboration and ultimately negatively impacts the organization’s culture.
The following seven strategies can help employees at any level better manage conflict, promote collaboration, preserve relationships and create positive outcomes.
1. Check your attitude.
“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” (William James)
Before addressing a situation, reflect on your own attitude and state of mind. Are you approaching the situation with a positive attitude and open mind? Or are you already on defense and ready to stand your ground? Changing you attitude can make all the difference when trying to resolve conflict. If you’re already on the defensive, you’re not going to be prepared to listen to others and communicate effectively.
2. View conflict as an opportunity.
With conflict comes an opportunity to learn, grow and develop at a personal and organizational level. When addressed properly, conflict can stimulate learning and innovative solutions. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” or “What changes can I make to improve this situation or relationship?” By altering your perception of conflict, you can serve as a change agent to help support employee empowerment, engagement and increased productivity.
3. Allow everyone to express their opinions and feelings.
Before any resolutions are discussed, all feelings and opinions should be heard and acknowledged. Feelings of anger, hurt or frustration often exist in conflict-riddled situations. It’s best to get them all out in the open so they can be acknowledged before moving on. Failure to do so may result in resentment and grudges.
4. Find some common things to agree on.
It’s important to find things that those involved in the confrontation can agree upon, no matter how small. An example might be agreeing there is a problem or agreeing on the solution to fix the problem. Even agreeing on making small changes to work toward addressing the issue can bring team members together.
5. Consider a mediator.
Sometimes it’s best to have an unbiased third-party mediator to help facilitate discussion and problem-resolution. If you cannot work out a solution, set up a mediation session. A mediator can keep the meeting moving forward and ensure it is productive and purposeful.
6. Communicate effectively.
Effective communication strategies, such as communicating clearly and concisely, can eliminate ambiguity and misinterpretation. But communication doesn’t just involve the person doing the talking; it also involves the listener. To communicate effectively, one must also listen effectively. Focusing on the person talking rather than thinking about your response can help you fine-tune your listening skills and improve your overall communication. Also, removing distractions such as computers and cellphones will force you to look the person in the eyes and let them know your attention is on them.
7. Practice respect and humility.
Respecting differences among co-workers and understanding that others’ opinions are valuable can be defining factors that set the tone for the rest of the discussion. Without respect among co-workers, workplace conflict incidents will increase and have a negative impact on organizational culture. Additionally, when employees at all levels exhibit humility, such as seeking and accepting feedback and focusing on the needs of others, job performance and employee engagement improve.
Managing conflict in the workplace is not easy. But when addressed with the intention to improve relationships, reinforce collaboration and solve problems in a way that promotes positive change, everyone wins. The key is not to avoid conflict but to accept and acknowledge it so all team members learn and grow.