How to Better Manage Conflict in the Workplace

See also: Workplace Stress

Having the ability to maintain a healthy working environment by identifying, managing, and resolving conflict is a highly desirable skill. It’s the mark of a successful leader, and the best leaders will be able to not only resolve conflicts effectively, but also find value in the conflicts that arise.

In this article, we’re going to help you learn how to better manage conflict in the workplace.

The Benefits of Conflict

Until very recently, most organisations considered conflict in the workplace as entirely a bad thing. But as it turns out, there is some value in having conflict in the workplace, and it can bring some benefits to a company such as:

  • Increased creativity from workers
  • An open and honest exchange of ideas
  • Competition between employees to improve
  • Challenge of the status quo that can bring innovation

Those who can manage conflict in the workplace skilfully will be able to bring all these benefits and more to their organisations. We’ll go over a few tips below, but first we’re going to look at the major causes of conflict.

Lone worker sitting in an open plan office.

The Causes Conflict in the Workplace

Workplace conflict arises out of an almost endless number of different situations. Here are the most common reasons why it can develop:

  • Poor communication. Probably the biggest culprit of workplace conflict. So much could be avoided through clear and effective communications in the work environment.

  • Incomplete or ambiguous information. If someone fails to reveal the whole task to a colleague or employee, then the different expectations can spark conflict.

  • An unclear channel for reporting. When information must pass through a range of managers and co-workers, there’s more chance that it will be distorted and start a conflict.

  • Weak management styles. Great managers can inspire their employees, while those who are weaker when it comes to management often cultivate a workplace ripe for conflict thanks to unclear communications,

  • Cultural and personal differences. Everyone is different, and some personalities and cultures just don’t mesh in the workplace.

  • Unfair treatment. When employees feel that they’re being treated unfairly because someone else has received too much recognition or reward, it can easily turn into conflict.

  • Unrealistic needs and expectations. When an employer fails to take into consideration an employee’s needs and expectations, conflict can easily brew. For example, if a manager expects work to be done out of work hours when an employee needs to take care of a child.

  • Increased workloads. When an employer heaps on piles of work to an employee, they can often feel like they’re being pushed too hard if things become unmanageable. This of course causes resentment and can spark conflict.

Managing conflicts costs a lot of time and energy for managers, but it is time well spent. Unresolved conflicts can escalate until they affect the entire organization, creating an unpleasant work atmosphere for everybody. It’s up to the leaders and HR professionals in an organization to identify, address and resolve conflicts.

How to Manage Conflict in the Workplace

These tips will help HR managers and other leaders in an organisation avoid, manage, and resolve conflicts while getting some value for the business.

  • Job descriptions. To avoid unnecessary conflicts, it’s essential that employees know exactly what their job entails. They’ll know what’s expected of them and their colleagues around them.

  • Clear rules around accepted behaviours. Create a clear set of guidelines for employees to follow that sets up expected behaviours in the workplace. For example, you could outline why gossiping and manipulation aren’t acceptable behaviours.

  • Listen. If you’re a HR professional or a leader in the workplace, make sure to listen to and consider everybody’s concerns.

  • Get to the root of the problem. Most issues that arise in the workplace don’t come from a surface level. Getting to the root of the problem will allow you to solve the problem more effectively for the benefit of all parties, rather than just putting a band-aid on the conflict.

  • Work against the problem, not the person. Separating the person from the problem will go a long way towards helping you find a more effective solution.

  • Remain calm. It goes without saying that you’ll be more effective in solving workplace conflicts if you’re able to remain calm throughout the entire mediation process. Getting angry yourself will only bring about further conflict.

  • Change your mindset. If you start looking at conflict not as a problem to be fixed but rather as an opportunity for development and growth, it challenges us to rise to new ways of thinking in the workplace.

  • Find common ground. Helping two employees find the common ground in their views will be the basis of any resolution. See our pages on negotiation skills to improve in this area.

  • Appreciate the differences as well. Just like finding the common ground helps solve problems, identifying the differences between employees is also very helpful. Identifying and respecting different viewpoints helps cultivate a healthy workplace where employees aren’t afraid to bring new ideas to the table, often leading to increased creativity and productivity.

  • Empathy. One of the most important skills in effective conflict resolution is being able to put yourself in someone’s shoes. This helps you find a solution that’s good for all parties involved.

  • Pick your battles. Finally, knowing when you should step in and when you should keep your distance is key. Avoid tackling the minor issues and instead focus on the conflicts that might jeopardize staff productivity or morale.

  • Create awareness of the consequences. If you’ve reached an agreeable solution, make sure that all parties are aware of any consequences if they renege on the resolution.

With these strategies, HR professionals and workplace leaders should be able to effectively prevent, manage and resolve workplace conflicts. And when they do inevitably arise, having the clarity to look at them as an opportunity rather than a problem to be fixed will go a long way to finding an effective solution and improving the overall workplace culture.

For more help, see our page on communicating in difficult situations.

Conflict Resolution and Mediation

Further Reading from Skills You Need

Conflict Resolution and Mediation

Learn more about how to effectively resolve conflict and mediate personal relationships at home, at work and socially.

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