It’s such a dirty word, conflict. We shy away from it at the best of times for many reasons, either because it is such a drain on our resources (mental or physical) or we go gung-ho head-first into it without regard for the consequences and who it may affect when it comes to collateral damage. Whatever the outcome, we can all agree that conflict in the workplace is the knife edge in which working relationships are made or broken. From the perspective of business leaders or line managers, if a conflict is that big, it can make a big impact on everyone else’s ability to work.
So where do we begin to deal with the standard workplace conflict? The first step to take is simple, don’t avoid it! While we can all hope that the problem will just go away and it can resolve itself, this is not proactive in the slightest. The detrimental effect of letting it go its own way can start to pollute your work environment. Or if it appears to have disappeared, it is very likely to make a return as soon as a stressful incident occurs and it will be worse than how it originally was. The currency your employees embody to the business is as essential as the walls which surround you and dealing with conflicts, whatever form they may take, should be something to tackle head on. That isn’t to say that you should jump head first into arguments, and make the two parties “duke it out” so it is out of the way. There are subtle and personable approaches you can take.
The first approach that is useful for dealing with workplace conflict is to use active listening. Think about it, whenever we are arguing with someone, we are too busy thinking what to say next to actually pay attention to what the other party is saying, meaning that the issues can go round and round and never get resolved. The benefit of having a third party, you, in this environment is to provide a level-headed approach to the situation. Emotions cloud our judgmental capacity, and as such, when we are in the midst of conflict it is very hard to come to any sort of satisfactory conclusion. Acting as a mediator helps to show empathy for both parties and will help to relax the situation and keep the emotions at bay. Once each side has stated their case, the points of view can be developed by asking open-ended questions, using feedback, and encouraging empathy from the arguing parties.
There are cases where it may not be a simple disagreement, but something more severe. In cases like this, it can mean the difference between a good working environment and one where people’s work is disrupted. The role you need to play, as a manager, is to understand the official procedures and how they can be implemented. This is where HR comes into play, because if an employee has a specific grievance that is very serious and may warrant official warnings or dismissal, then you need to be sure you are operating by the book. For those that need to have more experience in learning how to handle staff problems or grievances, there are firms that deal with this first-hand, like Ellis Whittam, and there are many resources available to managers that are learning the basics and need to implement this and the legislations about official staff procedures, like a dismissal. The delicate balance of a task such as this can be a difficult one to implement properly and requires active listening, but also it will need you to state expectations for future behavior.
This is an option where if you find your role as a mediator is unsuccessful, and the conflict cannot be resolved, or if you cannot be impartial, this is where HR would come into play. But as a manager, you need to be firm in how you expect the behavior of the staff to be in the future. You are within your rights to explain what you demand from the member of staff regarding their behavior in the future, but it requires direct language from you. A common approach is to clearly state the outcome if the demands are not met, such as “if you don’t do X and Y, then we will have to reassess the role you are doing.” The difficulty in this is to not make it threatening language, and this is where an HR department can help with this.
Conflict is the bane of many managers. It can sap productivity and cause gossip, but by implementing the right strategies, you can help to stop it in its tracks.