Eventually, even the best teams have moments of tension that can lead to conflict at work. When people from different backgrounds with different ways of handling stress have misunderstandings, unresolved conflicts can fester and cause issues. However, with the right approach, conflict can be handled professionally and serve as a way to better communicate in the future.
The definition of workplace conflict
Understanding what causes conflict and techniques to manage it when it happens are key skills for any manager. Disagreements can be useful and inspire new perspectives, but for the purpose of this article, we would define workplace conflict as: sharp disagreements or opposing ideas that have the potential to impact business operation in some way.
How conflict happens
There’s generally more than one reason for conflict at work, but any combination of ego, pride, jealousy, personal problems at home or performance issues can play a role. Psychology research suggests conflicts can happen when someone is unable to regulate emotions appropriately. Often, employees come to work with different levels of emotional maturity and may not understand reactions that may be acceptable at home are not in the office. When dealing with an emotional reaction from an employee, managers need to validate the employee’s feelings while offering suggestions for more appropriate ways to handle the situation. Busy managers who want to downplay situations will often find this causes more harm than good.
Types of conflict
Broadly, conflicts can be categorized as interpersonal, when two people can’t seem to get along; or task-based, where an employee and a manager or a team have a disagreement about which tasks need to be completed.
- Interpersonal conflicts may stem from jealousy, insecurity, annoyance or just personality differences. These conflicts can be difficult to solve because it’s difficult to ask someone to change who they are. For example, one person on a team might always talk about himself or his problems, rarely checking on others. This type of emotional conflict is tough to resolve quickly because there is a series of behaviors that need to change.
- Task-based conflicts can spring up as teams struggle to find enough resources to get the work done, or individuals find they are given work that is not fulfilling in some way. These can be resolved with honest conversations between managers and reports, and among teams.
Here are a few ways managers can empower their people to help find a solution to the conflict.
- Don’t be afraid to confront conflict. Conflict rarely, if ever, goes away on its own. In fact, not dealing with conflict generally makes it worse and creates a toxic workforce environment. Not dealing with conflict results in lost productivity, a lack of collaboration, low morale and high turnover.
- Acknowledge the problem. One of the biggest mistakes a manager can make is to downplay or dismiss an employee conflict. Phrases such as “you two need to get over it” will only deepen the rift and will not solve the problem, even if it seems trivial. Acknowledge the issue, let people know they are heard, and work with each person to remedy the situation.
- Create a space. Without an opportunity to resolve conflict on an ongoing basis, small problems can turn into bigger problems. Make issue resolution an agenda item at team meetings and regular one-on-one meetings to give team members a chance to discuss problems — this should be done in private.
- Communicate openly. Many conflicts start with workers having incomplete or incorrect information. Work to always have clear communication delivered through more than one channel to ensure understanding.
- Hold training. Formal conflict resolution training can be helpful to prepare managers for dealing with conflict, or be offered teamwide to find better ways to solve problems.
- Define acceptable behavior. Sometimes, employees simply don’t understand appropriate ways to deal with conflict. Managers can suggest more positive ways to deal with issues, and offer to be a sounding board for “off the record” venting when there are problems.
- Substitute emotions. Conflict leads to negative emotions, most notably anger and frustration. A manager can substitute those emotions by simply saying “I understand you are under a lot of pressure right now. That’s because you’re extremely valuable and your work is helping drive our success.” This substitutes a negative emotion with more positive feelings.
Managers who use the above techniques have a greater chance of improving morale, reducing absenteeism, improving overall company culture and retaining top employees. If you’re seeing conflict arise on your team, continually addressing it will help improve your team’s success.
How Paycor Helps
For help with staying up to speed on what’s happening in your work environment and identifying conflict before it becomes a problem, Paycor can help with Pulse Surveys. Frequent confidential engagement surveys increase engagement, enhance trust and provide leadership teams with access to data that will help tackle problems head-on.