How to handle conflict in the workplace

People spend a large part of their lives at work and conflict between people and teams can have a serious impact on how they feel about their work and their motivation. Conflict can impact staff retention and result in talented people leaving organisations because they just can’t put up with it any longer. But what can managers and business owners do to better manage conflict in the workplace?

The first thing they need to do is to take a step back and take an honest assessment of how the situation has escalated and then commit to improving it.

Remember the saying “it takes two to tango” - any conflict, whether between the boss and a colleague or two colleagues will always have two sides. It’s worth all parties taking a step back and examining what went wrong, and for both parties to take ownership of their contribution to the conflict. How did the problem start? What is the root causes of the issues? Were there any signs the relationship was turning sour that were missed?

With careful evaluation often comes the ‘realisation’ and the understanding from people that perhaps they have both contributed to the situation. On a more positive note, it can also lead to the knowledge that the damage may not be irreversible. At the heart of most problems and misunderstandings at work is poor communication. Take, for example, the employee who decided not to overload his manager’s inbox by only copying his boss on emails when he needed to escalate a situation. The problem here was that the manager only every received negative communications.

Whilst the boss was only updated on around 5 percent of problems, all the communication was negative, which made him doubt his employee’s ability and competence. Communication from staff must be balanced if they are to get a fair representation.

One way of avoiding conflict and to stop resentment building at work is for managers to encourage open and honest communication that is not confrontational, but encourages trust and safety. If a manager behaves in a way that another person finds unacceptable, it is not acceptable to talk behind their back, or ignore the issue, the employee needs assume responsibility to give constructive feedback to help the relationship and establish boundaries.

Equally, if an employee has made a mistake, they need to admit it and apologise – honest communication from both parties is an essential component of a good working relationship between a boss and an employee. An apology will go a long way to rebuild trust.

Here are some other tips to that everyone in the workplace should take on board to help avoid conflict and create harmonious teams:

Building rapport
Building rapport with someone helps people get along and potentially deflect conflict. A useful tool to achieve this is mirroring - gently copying a person’s body language and speech in order to build rapport and trust. Mirroring techniques can be used in the workplace to make people more receptive, willing to listen and to be persuaded.

Think before you act
People need to assess a situation’s potential outcomes before taking action. This involves asking the question how they would feel if they were in the other person’s shoes. Looking at the situation from another’s perspective can allow language or behaviour to be modified to avoid potential conflict.

Define intentions and expectations One of the main reasons that conflict occurs in the workplace is that people assume they understand the intentions of others, but in reality, they don’t.. It is all too common and a mistake for people to assume that others have ill intentions. They need to instead to consider what they really might be. Another common problem is when expectations from managers or colleagues are developed without being communicated clearly.  To avoid potential conflict it is important they clearly communicate their intentions and what each person expects of the other.

Admit mistakes and right wrongs and go the extra mile
Often people are afraid of admitting mistakes because they don’t trust others to treat them fairly. However, people need to take responsibility for their failure and not blame others or circumstances. Taking responsibility ensures people can learn from the mistakes, and take appropriate action to remedy. Action to remedy the situation is critical to ensure the apology is not seen as empty words.

People often apologise, and do nothing more. If they make a mistake and apologise then they need to follow through, correct the previous situation and demonstrate they will change. Apologies mean nothing if the same mistakes continue to be made.

Constructive feedback
Managers also need to take time to provide feedback and to ask for feedback, this should be done calmly and constructively without engaging defensive emotions.

Know when to call a time out
If a conversation is deteriorating, take a break then re-group to finish the conversation once emotions have calmed down.

As quoted before, ‘it takes two to tango’, however, if people are prepared to acknowledge that they have contributed to the conflict in some way, and take responsibility for that contribution they will be half way towards creating a harmonious working relationship with their boss and colleagues.