Workplace conflicts happen all the time. On average, managers spend 4 hours a week dealing with conflict. Even the most utopian company cultures experience a minor dust-up here or there. However, the severity and impact of the conflict often depend on how it’s handled by HR or management. Is your team equipped to manage workplace conflicts?
Managing workplace conflicts takes skill and tact. However, in the most recent Myers-Briggs Conflict at Work study, nearly 25% of respondents said their managers handled conflict poorly or very poorly. Leaders have a lot of talents, but resolving disputes isn’t always one of them.
Now, not every conflict demands immediate attention. In fact, disagreements are often a sign of a high-functioning team; they can show a diversity of ideas and lead to better final results. The trick, however, is knowing when a squabble between employees requires intervention.
Ideally, you can build a transparent culture in your team that promotes open communication, so most conflicts remain relatively brief or benign. But, when you need to smooth the friction at work, flex your listening muscles, practice empathy, and keep a level head. In this blog, we’ll examine some causes of workplace conflicts, how to prevent them, and how to manage them.
Causes of workplace conflict
Of course, disagreements at work come in many shapes and sizes, and surely, we’ve all seen one or two that completely defies categorization. However, the majority of workplace conflicts follow similar patterns. When you can quickly recognize those situations, mitigating issues becomes much more manageable.
According to the aforementioned Myers-Briggs survey, the top five reasons for workplace conflict are:
- Poor communication (47% of respondents)
- Lack of role clarity (42% of respondents)
- Heavy workloads (38% of respondents)
- Personality clashes (37% of respondents)
- Changes in products, policies, or organizational structure (30% of respondents)
Naturally, poor communication tops the list, with almost half of the respondents noting it as the leading cause of conflict in their workplace. It’s worth noting, however, that the survey found only 36% of remote workers mentioned poor communication as the primary cause of conflict versus 56% of non-remote workers.
Poor communication tends to be the root of most of these issues. If an employee doesn’t clearly understand their day-to-day responsibilities, that’s often due to lapses in communication with their managers. Heavy workloads can result from understaffing, but they can also be caused by a lack of honesty about your bandwidth.
Additionally, some conflicts emerge based on differences in working styles. Perhaps one team member needs a highly structured work process to succeed, but another thrives with more breathing room. Similarly, another common cause of disagreements comes from leadership styles. This manifests in several ways, such as different leaders approaching conflict resolution in vastly distinct ways, ultimately worsening the issue. It could also be a team-level issue where a manager lacks strong listening skills or a commitment to transparency.
Furthermore, we’ve probably all found ourselves in the middle of a more tribal kind of conflict between departments. When working across departments is a struggle, it often leads to a sense of “My team versus yours.” That’s not a sustainable relationship between groups.
Finally, certain conflicts go beyond the reasonable sort you’d expect in a workplace. That includes bullying, harassment, and discrimination. Your business must approach those issues with defined procedures and a firm resolve, as those conflicts have no place in any organization.
Managing workplace conflict
HR and management must prepare to handle workplace conflicts as they arise. While certain types of disputes don’t require intervention, leadership must apply their best judgment surrounding acceptable engagement between employees. The more disputes employees deal with each week, the worse their job satisfaction will be. In that sense, conflict just begets more conflict. So what should you do? Assuming the issue can be solved and doesn’t require immediate discipline (such as bullying and harassment), start with these steps.
First, if a workplace conflict appears to be a problem, don’t wait to solve it. Instead, start by determining exactly what caused the conflict and where all involved parties stand now. Without discovering as much context as possible, your attempt at solving the problem might make things worse.
Next, bring the parties together to mediate a productive conversation, but only after setting some ground rules. Ensure everyone who participates is prepared to keep things respectful. That means no yelling and no aggressive behavior. If those issues emerge during the conversation, that’s a good indicator that it’s time to take a break.
Then, steer the conversation towards shared interests between the parties. Instead of focusing on who’s right, see if there’s a result that everyone is working toward. As a mediator, you can also allow the conversation to progress and highlight common ground as it pops up.
Additionally, it’s critical that you listen carefully to what’s being said. If anyone leaves the conversation not feeling heard, you’ll end up back at square one. This is especially important for those directly involved in the dispute. You won’t resolve anything if you don’t clearly understand where the other person is coming from.
As the conversation progresses, begin talking through possible solutions with everyone. This allows you to reach a resolution that all parties agree on and encourages mutual understanding and collaboration. By doing that now, you’re planting the seeds for smoother conflict resolutions down the line. Once you’ve landed on your answer, put a plan in place to keep things moving forward and to address issues productively as they come.
Now, it’s also worth highlighting issues unique to remote teams. According to the survey, remote teams experienced the highest decrease in workplace conflicts since the pandemic, at 33%. Conversely, non-remote and hybrid teams were likelier to report an increased conflict rate. Still, as issues arise on your remote teams, take these additional steps.
First, make sure everyone gets to be heard on your calls. Often, people won’t speak up in meetings, and that just means the problem is festering silently. Next, utilize specific communication channels just for feedback. These need to be safe spaces to share ideas and notes. However, it’s important to lay clear ground rules about what constitutes constructive feedback in those channels and what should be handled individually. Finally, ask for feedback often. Regular feedback maintains a communicative remote culture, so provide frequent opportunities for growth and discussion.
When is conflict a good thing?
Briefly, let’s discuss how conflict helps your teams. Productive, constructive conversations happen all the time between employees with different ideas. Sometimes those interactions get a little heated, but as long as they stay focused on the topic at hand and speak respectfully, it can be beneficial to let it play out.
The Myers-Briggs survey notes several positive outcomes of workplace conflicts. Those include:
- Building relationships and collaboration
- Achieving a better solution
- Innovation and new perspectives
- Greater self-awareness and growth
- Moving on
You can’t be afraid of conflict at work. Often, it leads to great things! The key for your management team is understanding the difference between constructive and destructive disagreements.
ADDA’s employee relations experts can help!
Managing workplace conflict isn’t easy. It takes patience, empathy, and experience, and even then, specific issues prove tough to tackle. However, with ADDA’s help, your team can better navigate conflict and have healthier conversations. We can help you build a company culture that everyone is excited to participate in. Contact us today to learn more about how our HR services help your team manage conflict and boost morale.