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No matter your position, organization, or industry, you’ll have problems with coworkers at some point. It's common to experience occasional disagreements in a professional setting, especially when individuals with varying workstyles collaborate on projects. Luckily, one of the roles of an effective Human Resources team is to educate staff on how to handle conflict in the workplace and create policies to minimize situations from escalating.
What Causes Conflict in the Workplace?
Conflict is, unfortunately, part of being human: whether at work or home, the longer you stay around others, especially in the same setting, the more likely it will be for you to say or do something that upsets them, or for them to do or say the same to you.
Our culture places a high value on work, which means many of us spend more time at our jobs than at home, further increasing the likelihood of conflicts. A workplace may also include different personalities, processes, or situations than our home lives, so there’s a higher potential for disagreements and miscommunication. Typical areas of conflict include:
Vague or inconsistent objectives can lead to uncertain methods of achieving them. Unclear goals could start with different managers sharing differing information or giving shifting priorities to projects or personnel. Team members may focus on solutions to specific problems only to learn that they weren’t what the company expected. Leadership should work together to ensure clear, consistent messaging to all team members.
Unrealistic Deadlines or Expectations
Although a great team can often rally and complete a project in record time, counting on these miracles all the time is asking for trouble. Pushing to meet an arbitrary deadline can be stressful, which can quickly manifest into anger. At the same time, a deadline too far out can also lead to different problems – where some may work on it all the time, some may be bored with the lack of activity, and others are happy to put it off until closer to the deadline.
Changing Processes and Procedures
Workplaces can change quickly and often, and these situations are usually disruptive, no matter how much management tries to soften the blow. Sometimes it’s a physical change, like a remodel, expansion, or move. Sometimes it can be a software rollout or new methods of doing business. It might be something as simple as a new printer or copier. All changes require gaining new knowledge and discarding established routines and habits. The reason for the change is often appreciated, but employees still need time to adjust to it.
It can be tempting to ignore conflicts and hope that they simply go away, or resolve themselves on their own. Unfortunately, that's almost never the case - conflicts that are brushed under the rug tend to fester and grow even worse over time.
Employees generally like to avoid conflicts. However, if inappropriate behavior has no consequences, the behavior may continue. Managers and human resources employees seeking solutions for handling conflict with a coworker can ensure managers are consistent in how they take action. This way, if an employee is creating a hostile or uncomfortable work environment, there are measures in place that will help them stay accountable.
Whether you work at a small or large site, you’ll likely encounter people who work differently. Some hate distractions and love silence. Others thrive on noise. Some may not mind background music, but this could cause tension: What type? What volume? Who chooses it? There could also be cultural differences or discomfort – some may benefit from checking in and holding conversations.
On the other hand, some employees may prefer to work alone. A current trend in office design is the “open space” vs. the isolated cubicles of the past, which some love for their social value and others hate for the same reason.
Differences in Values or Priorities
Management can play a role in matching people and projects – good matches can boost energy and productivity, although poor matches can lead to tension. People can annoy each other with different values and opinions, from sports teams or political figures to how they spend their days off. Different ages and demographic groups could also be sources of tension. Professional sources of conflict can include how they tackle projects and communication styles.
The Impact of Unresolved Conflicts
It could be easy for hands-off managers to let problems work themselves out or for injured parties to apologize once everyone calms down. Unfortunately, sometimes the opposite happens, and minor conflicts may continue to fester. Challenges of unresolved disputes include:
Every minute focused on a particular conflict can be a minute not concentrated on core projects. Employees wanting to avoid being part of a more significant conflict may still get pulled in.
Whether it’s employee initiative or recommendations from human resources, one way to resolve conflict is for at least one party to leave. But a lingering, more significant conflict could also cause others to consider leaving. Disputes can lead to wasted time training or onboarding new employees or for remaining employees to receive extra work. Employees who stick around may face challenges motivating themselves, primarily if the original situation or personalities still exist.
Loyalty is important, especially in groups that have worked together for years, so it’s common for different ‘sides’ to form in situations where multiple options exist to solve particular problems or different perspectives of what triggered the original conflict.
When a conflict exists, some affected individuals or others involved may not want to be around the situation. Unscheduled absences could lead to challenges, such as coming in late or looking for reasons to leave the building as much as possible.
Workplace disruption can make it hard to concentrate on daily tasks. If someone believes the company is at fault or at least not doing enough to resolve a challenging situation, it can be harder to stay focused and motivated.
Companies don’t want to get to this point, but sometimes circumstances require it. A lawsuit in motion could add to the tension around a workplace, including fear of being called as a witness or to produce documents. Someone involved in the suit may have some degree of protection against retaliation. Still, others will likely need to be careful with their words or actions. A lawsuit could also be time-consuming and expensive for a company, no matter the outcome.
Recognizing Signs of Conflict
Strong relationships among coworkers could increase awareness of potentially tricky situations before things get out of control.
Human resources employees may not always be aware of tension or discomfort immediately, which could turn into workplace conflict. They may get involved, but only after things have flared up. A good conflict management strategy can include looking for specific indications ahead of time.
Recognizing conflict could be obvious observations like raised voices, shouting, or property damage. Or it could be more subtle, like someone not wanting to partner with certain coworkers on projects. People who may not want to address a problem with a coworker directly may try other ways to solve things, such as requesting a transfer, a different office, a shift change, or other accommodations.
It helps to foster a good relationship with different departments to hear about areas of concern or personality conflicts honestly. Strong relationships among coworkers could increase awareness of potentially tricky situations before things get out of control.
Strategies for Handling Conflict at Work
Emphasizing regularly that the company wants and needs to hear concerns about conflict early can resolve them more easily.
- Actively listen to all perspectives, ideas, and opinions. Recognition and attention are vital.
- Encourage a culture of constructive feedback. Less fear means more willingness to share.
- Avoid public confrontations. No one wants an audience, and privacy feels safer.
- Schedule private meetings. Individual or small group meetings provide a better atmosphere for listening and dialogue.
- Separate personal feelings. As an HR professional, you need to remain neutral while investigating different parties who you may know.
- Avoid blame and personal attacks. Looking at a problem objectively can go a long way to reducing strong emotional responses.
- Brainstorm solutions together. Seeking suggestions from those in a conflict can be empowering, rather than hearing, “This is what you need to do,” or worse, “This is what the company has to do.”
- Learn when to seek expert help. Identify when you need to seek a mediator, for a situation, such as administrators or legal staff.
Emotional Intelligence and Conflict Resolution
When figuring out how to handle conflict at work, it’s important to remember that most of us can discuss a situation rationally once we are calm and collected. Understanding when and how to address workplace conflict requires emotional intelligence. If emotions like anger, fear, or frustration run high, that may overshadow our abilities to think clearly. It may be harder to focus on finding solutions rather than simply reacting.
Emotional intelligence is a trait that determines how well we deal with adversity or changing conditions. People with high emotional intelligence may adapt well and try to find the upside of many situations. In contrast, others will find certain situations more challenging or disruptive to their mental or physical health.
Ways to help people raise their emotional intelligence, especially in conflict situations, include:
- Ask questions. If all you know is that someone is unhappy, figuring out a path forward for everyone will be hard. Take the opportunity to learn facts vs. what the rumor mill is telling you. Accurate information can go a long way in reducing unknowns or assumptions.
- Seek empathy. Someone who was slighted, overlooked, or picked on may not consider others’ perspectives or pain points. Learning how others deal with a particular conflict could lead to common ground and trust.
- Look deeper. Although it’s easy to react to a big change, sometimes the feelings may come from other sources, such as a history of poor communication and mistrust, uncertainty about the company’s past decisions, or concerns about the impact at home. Likewise, someone’s home life or past job situations may also influence how they respond to challenges at work.
- Visualize the outcome. Though emotions are strong, they are temporary. Once you get through them, you may realize that the conflict didn’t turn out to be as disruptive as you initially feared. Looking ahead past the emotion fading away can be a good exercise in planning for the positive.
Tips for Dealing With Difficult Co-workers
The company or external factors may cause conflict, but coworkers sometimes initiate it deliberately or accidentally. Whatever the cause, individuals or company staff can deal with it in various ways.
Identify Challenging Behaviors
Some inappropriate or challenging behaviors could include teasing or touching others on the shoulder for emphasis, making some feel uncomfortable. Some behaviors could even be misinterpreted as sexual harassment or bullying if gone too far. These behaviors could push employees to become vocal, especially when upset. There are a variety of situations you can observe these behaviors in the workplace. Seeking guidance before they cause conflict is key.
Maintaining Professionalism and Composure
Management must continue to spread the message that a workplace is always a professional location. Even if informal elements like a relaxed dress code or a laid-back vibe exist, employees must avoid letting too many casual “at home” behaviors slip in while keeping a formal focus, especially where respectable and respectful behavior is involved.
Addressing Conflicts Proactively
Some managers may have training in procedures to deal with workplace conflict but may need to gain the skills to solve or prevent it. To do this proactively and adequately requires stopping conflict and documenting the situation for future reference. Intervening and reporting the incident reduces the odds of it happening again and satisfy any required internal or external paperwork procedures.
Resolving Conflict in a Remote Work Setting
Some companies allow employees to work remotely, which poses different challenges. While physical conflicts may decrease, there could still be situations where coworkers disagree or are unhappy about something else regarding the company. Remote conflict in the workplace means a manager will still need to get involved.
Unique Challenges in Virtual Work Settings
Managers can still interact by phone or video but may not be able to talk physically. Or, if an in-person meeting is requested, it could raise tension and convey that there’s something serious if these occur infrequently. Some remote employees might be in different time zones, adding to scheduling challenges. Plus, simple technical challenges, such as video or audio problems or general connection errors, may affect these interactions.
Utilizing Technology for Communication
Services like Zoom, Teams, or Skype allow people to see and talk to each other, which is more effective than typing or using the phone. It can also let everyone on a call share documents or other files, which can be helpful when discussing discipline or paperwork.
Strengthening Remote Team Dynamics
There are various ways managers can work to get people comfortable with technology and each other to reduce irritation. Some of it can come by practicing and trying out a platform's features together. Even playing with filters or backgrounds on a call can get people laughing. Or holding optional “fun time” or “happy hour” with games, trivia, or sharing before or after a work call can be an enjoyable way for people to learn more about each other.
Learning and Growing From Conflict
While initially unpleasant, there could be some benefits for managers who successfully practice satisfactory conflict resolution skills and entire organizations. The more managers do this, the more they learn about their abilities in handling these occasionally tricky personnel situations. Employees will benefit by knowing that their managers are always looking for ways to ensure a safe, professional environment rather than letting negative behavior slide and not addressing it. Even employees involved in conflict situations may learn ways to deal with their behavior or choose to work elsewhere. Either way, the organization benefits, and its employees are more at ease.
Conflict Resolution Best Practices for Managers
The most effective ways to address conflict resolution can sometimes be a moving target, as company policies and procedures, such as documentation and processes, continually evolve. Some standard methods show a manager is serious about keeping conflict to a minimum include:
- Having an open-door policy
- Repeatedly emphasizing their availability to talk and support
- Offering ways for people to share information anonymously
- And promising to take action on every item brought to their attention
A sign of a weak manager is dismissing concerns quickly due to personal feelings. Too much of this violates trust and can discourage employees from coming forward. Action doesn’t always have to take the form of discipline, but assuring the staff that their concerns are taken seriously can go a long way in creating a supportive, productive culture.
Conflict Resolution Best Practices for Managers
If helping people, reducing conflict, and growing organizations sound like something that interests you, there are opportunities to learn these skills. Champlain College Online offers a graduate certificate in Human Resource Management that can teach vital skills about how to look for positive solutions in conflict situations, which can ultimately help a company thrive.
This graduate-level certificate can also offer valuable skills useful in job searches since every company can benefit from this type of focus. Many companies have HR departments focusing on hiring, training, and discipline and can benefit from someone with additional training in areas that help employees and companies grow.
Champlain College Online is proud to offer this program to help with your career goals, whether it’s a certificate or training as part of a degree program. Feel free to contact us to request more information.
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