Conflict is inevitable, and is a natural aspect of human relationships; however, when that conflict occurs in the workplace, it can be detrimental to the team and the whole organization. Unresolved workplace conflict can have a negative impact on team cohesion, individual mental health, employee productivity, and organization profitability.
Some larger companies have an in-house mediation process, either through the human resources department or via company policies that guide managers through conflict resolution steps. However, many companies don’t have a policy in place to handle conflict.
Let’s look at five tips managers and business owners can easily use to resolve conflict between employees.
Conflict shouldn’t be allowed to linger. The longer it drags on, the more likely it is that resentment, anger, and intractability will develop and make it more difficult for the conflict to be resolved. The longer a conflict percolates the harder it is to resolve and the more entrenched people become in their positions.
Once a manager knows about a disagreement, he/she should ensure the conflict is addressed in a timely fashion. The first step would be to speak privately to each employee. Find out if they feel safe and able to work it out themselves. If there are any allegations of harassment or bullying, you need to skip this step.
One caveat to this suggestion: timeliness should never compromise a thorough and meaningful conflict resolution process. It’s true that the conflict should be addressed as soon as possible, but the process needs to unfold and allow for all aggrieved parties to be heard. If someone feels like they’re being pressured to compromise in order to move on from the issue, then you could be trading one conflict for another.
Listening and mindfulness build trust. It’s likely that one party will go to the manager for assistance or to let them know about the conflict, and then the manager seeks out the other party to hear their side. A crucial step in addressing conflict in this manner is to remain as neutral as possible and listen without an agenda.
You want to make sure that both parties feel their grievances are heard and their emotions are understood. Listen to what both sides have to say. Ask for clarifications when needed. Encourage the employees to express their frustrations or anger in a healthy way. Ask what it is each party would like to see happen to resolve the disagreement. Blame is likely to be an issue, but listening without an agenda will help you as the manager understand the root of the conflict and form a clearer idea of what could the employees do to resolve the issue.
Little disagreements can get bigger and reputation and image concerns are usually a big part of these workplace disputes. Thus, make sure to do everything you can to protect confidentiality. Meet in a place where no one can overhear you. Urge the parties to keep the issues private and discourage idle gossip or watercolor chat. Texting and email are notoriously open to miscommunication and misinterpretation and are inappropriate methods for resolving disputes. Be explicit about that with the employees who have issues with each other. The lack of a face-to-face conversation with the ability to include invaluable body language and tone of voice is critical.
If it looks like that is not possible, or if the disagreement becomes more heated, the manager may need to step in and work through it with the employees or refer them to mediation.
If the employees are unable to resolve the issue on their own, the manager may need to serve as a mediator. Check first if your business or company has an employee handbook with conflict resolution policies. If so, refer to those policies and note when mediation becomes the recommended method.
Some conflicts are likely to require mediation more often than others, such as disagreements between large groups of people, contract negotiations, allegations of misconduct, and more. Other types of conflict, however, could potentially be resolved outside of mediation if the employees are willing to talk through it and the manager is helpful to both parties.
Finally, document everything. As a manager, you have a responsibility to ensure that conflicts among team members don’t fester or harm the team or the organization. Documenting what the conflict was about, who was involved, and how the conflict was solved is helpful should a similar conflict arise again. You can then look back and refer to previous notes to see what worked and if the same strategy will work again.
Conflict doesn’t have to be a negative, and it doesn’t have to be detrimental to your company. But it is crucial to deploy appropriate conflict management strategies and to address any conflicts before they lead to even bigger problems.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. An expert in dispute resolution and mediation, Ms. Kandell is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She has been a leader in the Montgomery County Bar Association and the Maryland Council for Dispute Resolution. She provides mediation services, group facilitation, neutral evaluation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.