While it is inevitable, you can employ certain strategies to effectively manage workplace conflict.

Managing Unhealthy Workplace Conflict

When people are thrown together for eight hours a day, five days a week, conflict is probably inevitable. After all, without some lower levels of conflict or competition, workplaces would be very boring places indeed, with little or no differing opinions or exchange of ideas.

Few people like conflict. And for a business, it does not just harm the individuals concerned. In fact, the results of a Know Bull Survey (Know Bull is a website committed to building awareness around bullying issues) showed that employees involved in a conflict at work were 70 per cent less productive than their peers – and those who witnessed conflict were 40 per cent less productive. All of which could lead to a negative effect on the bottom line.

The causes of workplace conflict are reasonably varied – researchers at the University of Florida identified eight main causes of workplace conflict: Conflicting needs, styles, perceptions, goals, pressures, roles; unpredictable policies and different personal values.

Organisations can help minimise unhealthy levels of conflict through sound HR policies such as clear position descriptions and standard operating procedures, open communication and a strong chain of command which ensures everyone knows their roles, responsibilities and how they fit into the organisation. Well-publicised grievance processes supported by management are also important.

So while workplace conflict is almost inescapable – there are some strategies you can employ to minimise and manage it.

  • Early intervention: Experience has shown that workplace conflicts rarely resolve themselves or just “blow over” – they just get bigger and more destructive. So if you suspect conflict is brewing, step in immediately. According to Monash University, early signs of conflict in the workplace can include gossip; avoidance; resistance; exclusion; absenteeism; mood changes in staff members; silences, or a drop in the amount of communication; inappropriate communication; negative body language; continual complaining or arguments; change in work and decision-making styles; changes in social patterns, and recurring problems.
    If any of these are happening in your workplace, the first thing to do is take the affected employees aside individually and try to get to the bottom of the issue. Once the underlying cause – or causes – become evident, you can take targeted action to resolve the conflict.
  • Staff consultation: Sometimes a resolution is as simple as asking the warring staff – and others affected – what outcome they want. Perhaps you need to revisit position descriptions; or reduce workloads; or update policies; or merely change the seating arrangements. These conversations can be difficult to have so it is important that you are properly prepared for them.
  • Mediation: As a manager, you may be a little too close to see the conflict rationally and objectively. Take a look at our article on the benefits of mediation. This is when calling in a third party is a good idea. The mediator could be someone in HR, a manager from another business unit, but sometimes (for example, when an issue has already reached serious proportions) it is best to get in an expert from outside the organisation.
    There are a number of companies – including ER Strategies – that specialise in mediation and dispute resolution, with experts that can keep a clear head and offer solutions and strategies to help settle any conflict. The key is to ensure you find a mediator that you trust – and who can also gain the trust of your staff.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the above steps will solve the problem, but at the very least, they will reassure your staff – and you – that conflict in your workplace is dealt with efficiently and effectively. And they may also go some way to mitigating any penalty should conflict escalate to such an extent that an industrial relations tribunal or the safety regulator becomes involved, or a workers’ compensation claim is submitted.

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