Conflict is an unavoidable part of every workplace, even for those who work in a remote environment. In fact, a recent study on remote-work conflict from MyPerfectResume indicates 80% of remote workers have experienced workplace conflict. Of those conflicts, 65% of them are between co-workers, 19% are between an employee and their boss, and 11% are between an employee and an external manager.
Although handling disputes is never fun, employees should not avoid dealing with workplace conflict. Ignoring conflict at work allows it to escalate and develop into other issues. Instead, quickly address and resolve the conflict to maintain a positive work environment. Here are some tips on how you can effectively manage and reduce workplace conflict within your company.
What is workplace conflict?
Workplace conflict, or organizational conflict, occurs when two or more people who work together have a disagreement due to differing interests or ideas. Workplace conflict can be actual or perceived. Common reasons for conflict in the workplace include unclear expectations, lack of teamwork, poor communication, workplace stress or burnout, rude behavior, bullying or harassment, lack of transparency or honesty, inadequate performance, poor leadership, and opposing values or personality types.
How does workplace conflict negatively impact businesses?
Conflict can cause workers to feel stressed, anxious, depressed and unconfident. Conflict can also serve as a distraction or cause employees to lose motivation, so you may see a reduction in employee performance and productivity when there is conflict within your organization.
Although some level of healthy conflict can be good for company growth, workplace conflict is bad for company culture when left unmanaged. Employees affected by negative workplace conflict may start to show up late to work, or even not all, placing the burden on co-workers who must cover for them. If workplace conflict is bad enough, it can ultimately result in higher turnover rates as employees choose to leave the company or need to be let go. [Read related article: 12 Reasons Employees Quit (and How to Prevent It)]
How do you manage conflict in the workplace?
The following seven tips can help employees and business leaders effectively deal with conflict in their workplaces.
1. Be proactive.
One of the best ways to resolve workplace conflicts is to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Attempt to proactively identify areas of potential conflict and intervene before any conflict ever occurs. If a conflict does arise, being proactive will most likely lessen its severity and length. You should seek to understand the natural tensions in your workplace and learn how they can best be minimized or eliminated.
For example, if you know the marketing department does not interact well with the accounting department, that could potentially lead to conflict. A good leader will recognize this and take steps to build a positive relationship between the departments. This can set up a collaborative environment instead of an adversarial climate. Being proactive with conflict is always time and effort well spent.
2. Set expectations for acceptable behavior.
Don't just assume employees will understand what constitutes acceptable workplace behavior and what doesn't. This can cause confusion and misunderstanding down the line. Instead, establish clear policies for what is and isn't acceptable behavior in the workplace with all new hires and regularly remind existing employees of the behavioral standards you expect.
Since many employees may work in a remote or hybrid setting as opposed to a traditional office, defining what is the "workplace" can be tricky. To avoid confusion, create a remote-work plan that establishes expectations for remote workplace behavior, and ensure it is regularly enforced. Once you establish clear expectations for workplace behavior, include them in your employee handbook and review them with your workforce. Have each worker sign an annual acknowledgment of acceptance and understanding.
The last piece of setting expectations is ensuring your standards are constantly reinforced across the board. Be fair in how you react to each situation as conflicts arise. For example, if you have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, that means no employee should ever be allowed to bully others – no exceptions.
3. Use clear communication.
Communication is key in all aspects of business, and conflict management is no exception. A lack of clear communication can cause a multitude of problems. For example, if communication is unclear, an employee might not understand what type of behavior is expected, or they might misinterpret another's intentions as malicious. Train your employees and managers on how to best communicate with each other when they're at work.
As many employees work from home, it's important to note that poor communication may play a larger role in workplace conflict among remote workers. There have been many advancements in digital communication in recent years, but virtual communication can still be strained or awkward. It's easier to misinterpret people over digital platforms like email and instant messaging because you lose out on tone, inflection and nonverbal cues. Online communication can also cause problems when workers fail to respond to messages (intentionally or not).
4. Choose your timing wisely.
Timing is everything. While it's important not to let conflict linger, you also don't want to try to resolve conflict when tempers are still elevated. Sometimes it's better to speak with people individually while you let things cool down among a group of affected employees. People who are upset do not always make rational decisions or have the emotional distance to see the conflict clearly.
By engaging two (or more) employees in a mediation session before they're ready, you might unintentionally escalate the conflict. The goal is to successfully resolve the issue, and in order to achieve this, all parties need to be on the same page and must be ready to address the core issues in a calm manner. If this can't happen, consider whether there is a better time or way to attempt to resolve the conflict.
5. Train your leaders on conflict management.
There is little doubt that workplace conflict is a major business issue that needs to be effectively addressed by company leaders. Unfortunately, often leaders aren't equipped with the experience and skills necessary to facilitate conflict resolution. Many even suffer from apprehension and/or avoidance when conflicts arise.
Train your leadership, especially those leaders working remotely, on how to effectively manage employees, particularly as it relates to conflict. Instead of assuming they know everything, offer your managers formal training on how to properly handle disagreements and oppositions in the workplace. You might also consider training on related topics like workplace discrimination and harassment, even if they're not legally required. Equipping your supervisors with tools to de-escalate and resolve situations can make a big difference in how successful their responses are and how much conflict affects your business. [Learn more about employment and anti-discrimination laws in the workplace.]
6. Remember the WIIFM factor.
WIIFM stands for "what's in it for me?" This is a critical factor whenever a leader is dealing with employee conflict. WIIFM is really what employees tend to care about the most. They want to know how things affect them personally and what they have to lose or gain in a given situation. This is also a key factor in their motivation.
When you clearly communicate company benefits to employees, there is less possibility of workplace conflict. You will also be in a better position to resolve conflict when it occurs. When you know what motivates your employees and what they can get out of a situation, you will better understand the best tactics to help resolve their conflicts.
7. Use conflict as an opportunity for growth.
Look at every workplace conflict as an opportunity for learning and growth. Sometimes disagreement and conflict, when handled correctly, can even be healthy. You should look to leverage conflict to help with team building and learning. This can be done at the organizational or individual level.
Ask yourself and your team, "Which larger lessons can we learn from this conflict? How can we use those lessons to prevent future workplace conflicts?" By asking the right questions, you can create internal innovation and improve the workplace. Smart leaders are always looking for ways to ensure that every situation, even a conflict, has a positive outcome and effect on the company.
Zak Mustapha contributed to the writing and research in this article.