Management

Understanding and managing conflict in the workplace

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One of the uncomfortable inevitabilities in every workplace is that conflict arises, sooner or later. The reasons can be both profound and mundane, and the effects can be negligible or significantly impactful. Every good manager worth his or her salt knows that along with that inevitability comes the inescapable responsibility of managing conflict in the workplace. But how does one do that, exactly? As we just mentioned, the reasons can range from the shallow to the most weighty; add the fact that humans are complex and complicated creatures, to say the least, and that company culture and circumstances also need to be factored in.

Consider this: A study published by CPP Global shows that a whopping 85% of employees at ALL LEVELS (so note that even those in the c-suite are not spared from this), and that workers in the U.S. spend around 2.8 hours EVERY WEEK dealing with conflict situations. Computed annually, those hours of lost productivity are worth billions of dollars. More sobering is the CPP Global data that also shows that 27% of employees witness conflict result in physical altercations, while 25% say that avoiding conflict situations in the workplace result in skipping work.

 

This is precisely why we set out to better understand the different facets and factors that affect workplace conflict. In doing so, we can be better and more equipped to deal with these issues when they do inevitably arise, and have the right mindset, solutions, and initiatives when that time comes.

What causes conflict in the workplace?

That question is the first question many (should) ask when it comes to managing conflict in the workplace. Without understanding its roots and where it comes from, any solution you put forward will be like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound — in the long run, it does more harm than good, and you’ll be setting yourself up for more grief down the road.

1. Fudged communication

Problems that stem from (mis)communication are probably the number one and primary causes of conflict in the workplace. Sometimes people communicate differently and have different levels of sensitivity and different ways of looking at things. Or it can just be good ‘ol flopped communication — a human mistake we all tend to make one time or another, more often than we like, probably.

Let’s say a manager assigned Employee X a task. Later, manager changes his / her mind and reassigns that task to Employee Y without discussing that with Employee X. Sure, you could argue that it is the managers prerogative to do something like that but it may very well cause offense to Employee X (and rightly so), especially when that employee already put in the work for it.

2. Incompatible personalities

Suffice to say, people are, well, people. We all have our own distinct personalities and ways of approaching the myriad of social situations. Naturally some personalities will clash with one another, especially when there is a breakdown in the understanding and acceptance of the differences in each others’ personalities.

One good example here is when it comes to blunt and frank people. They’re straightforward and don’t beat around the bush — which may come off to people as being arrogant or insensitive. Some may feel that bluntness is only reserved for managers or people in authority, and a co-worker on equal footing who is straightforward may likely find himself or herself at odds with other employees.

3. Conflicting resources

Naturally, a workforce will need certain resources in order to accomplish their tasks at work. When meeting rooms, office supplies and other resources are in scare supply and a lot of people need them — or worse, need them AT THE SAME TIME — conflict can arise.

4. Stress and pressure

When people are under stress and pressure, they tend to snap sooner or later, and that could lead to workplace conflict. Often times, members of an organization depend on one another to a certain extent to get things done. But more often than not, all involved have multiple things on their plate, making it more difficult to prioritize (especially when these tasks involve multiple bosses).

Consider Employee X, who has been assigned one task by Manager A. The task involves working with Employee Y, who is also working on another task from Manager B. While they need to collaborate together, it is a delicate balance between devoting enough time, energy and resources for each of the tasks they have. Moreover, conflict between Manager A and Manager B is also possible, since each one will be working on his or her own timeline and are also accountable to their own superiors. It may sound convoluted, but this is a pretty common situation in many workplaces.

5. Unhealthy competition in the workplace

 

Many organizations encourage some sort of competition within the company, which by itself isn’t bad at all. Healthy competition can lead to increased productivity and can better motivate stakeholders to perform better and even collaborate better. The problem arises when people cross that all too thin line where they make the competition unhealthy by becoming more hostile towards competing individuals or teams, which can actually take time away from doing the task at hand because the people involved are too busy bickering with each other. Sometimes, the situation can even devolve to incidents where physical violence occurs. So this is something all managers and leaders should consider very thoughtfully before implementing any kind of competition or race.

Managing conflict in the workplace

What managers and other organizational leaders should realize at the very beginning is that organizations are made up of people. In the same way that machines and robots need maintenance to work, so do the people that comprise the workforce. It is in understanding and listening to the different human feelings, emotions, and perspectives of the people who work with you that the key lies to properly managing any conflict that arises between them and developing the right conflict resolution strategies that work for your particular organizational culture.

There is no set formula for conflict management — people are complex and everyone is different. It is also through proper management of workplace conflict that all involved can develop a healthy emotional resilience to stress and other sources of conflict, which will be beneficial to the individuals themselves, as well as to the organization, down the road.

1. Establish clear channels and means of communication

Managing conflict in the workplace starts with managing the way people in the organization communicate. It’s important to have sensible and practical protocols and processes in place so that incidents of miscommunication can be minimized. Like in the example of the manager who reassigns the task, it may very well be the manager’s prerogative to do so, but is it really worth the grief of handling a conflict situation that the original person assigned to the task be informed and consulted beforehand? What’s more, a more proper handling of the situation could result in better collaboration and a more efficient transition of tasks and duties.

Transparency is key in organizational communication — of course there will be certain types of information that is need-to-know only or is only limited to a certain circle of people — but in general it is always ideal to have transparency in communication. This way, there’s always a ready reference to clear things up in the event of a misunderstanding, if those misunderstandings cannot be prevented from the get-go.

2. Take a “human” perspective of things

More often than not, many managers resort to hiding behind the rulebook. They cringe at trying to solve conflict situations and just refer everything to human resources, which may not always have the proper time or resources to see things hashed out properly. Consider trying to understand all sides of the conflict, and see what can be done. Try to reach a compromise and a solution that all parties can work with. This results not only in better talent retention, but also raises the morale of workers and motivates them to perform better because they know that management listens to them.

It’s tempting to take a wholly objective and dispassionate look at things, but effective dealing with people needs a more empathetic approach. Being able to understand conflicts and the perspectives of the people involved help prevent future incidents, and help develop the camaraderie and working relationship of all employees involved, which benefit the organization in the long run.

3. Never make it just about who is right or wrong, or who wins or loses

Conflicts can only be considered “successfully” resolved is when all parties involved come to a mutual agreement on a solution or compromise. Pitting the parties against each other — or even viewing them as adversarial — only serve to further the rift between them. This actually exacerbates the conflict, and can lead to worse incidents in the future. Remember (and help all the parties involved remember) that you are all working for the good of the organization and they need to establish some sort of common ground for them to work together on.

A large part of the basis of the success of organization is the way they work together. Teamwork carries the company into the future, and the “winners and losers” mentality in conflict is a direct opposite of what teamwork means and entails.

 

Try to approach conflict understanding in resolution in a mutually respective atmosphere, and you’ll probably find insights into other’s behavior and perspectives (and even clients’ expectations!) that will help establish a solution that works best for the team (and the individuals who comprise it), the client, and the task/s you have on your plate. Remember, there is always common ground — the key is putting in the effort to find it. The results (especially the long term ones) are worth the effort in the end.

Not every conflict is a disaster

Keep in mind though, that not all conflicts in the workplace are utter disasters — always take it as a means to learn new things. For example, conflicts caused by miscommunication can help decision-makers and policy-makers have the ability to see where communication methods, protocols, and processes can be improved and enhanced.

In the same way when conflicts arise from the use of certain resources, management and leadership can determine if new resources need to be added or if other related processes for procurement and use of these resources can be upgraded; not to mention, doing so may very well result in better resource management and cost-efficiency.

Writing for Forbes, Mike Myatt, Chairman of N2Growth says that, “Perhaps most importantly for leaders, good conflict resolution ability equals good employee retention. Leaders who don’t deal with conflict will eventually watch their good talent walk out the door in search of a healthier and safer work environment.” It’s important for a company to better consider the state of its stakeholders in order to retain good talent. Retained good talent leads to continued enhancement of skills and work ethic, all of which are essential to helping that organization grow and develop going forward. It also makes the company a more attractive workplace, and thus you only not have a better chance of retaining good talent, but also attracting good talent as well.

 

Once you learn to properly manage conflict in the workplace, then you can potentially create win-win situations where everyone comes out wiser and better in the end.

Closing thoughts

Conflict is always going to arise in any workplace, and managing that conflict in the workplace entails having the right mindset to see things smoothed out and fixed. To this end, the organization also needs to equip itself with the right tools to help with conflict-resolution prevention and management initiatives.

Runrun.it’s pioneering and innovative suite of workforce and workflow management tools are the perfect means to help prevent workplace conflicts — with tools that help individuals and teams within the organization communicate and collaborate, cooperation and teamwork comes more smoothly and organically. A lot of tools also provide real time data to managers and other decision-makers to help them see where the workflow can be improved and where people can be possibly upskilled. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg — to see how Runrun.it’s tools can help YOUR particular organization, check out the free trial here.

managing conflict in the workplace

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