Conflict happens. It’s a fact of life. But when it’s happening within your organization, the negative effects can run far, wide, and fast.
If you want to avoid the chaos, you’ll need to step back and examine what causes workplace conflict, how you may be contributing to the problem, and ways to help diffuse or prevent it.
Occasional workplace conflict is natural and inevitable. But left unattended, it can quickly settle in and become part of the fabric of your company. As this happens, you will begin to experience some very unpleasant consequences:
- People stop communicating and/or are afraid to speak up
- People stop listening and/or only hear what they want to
- Employees form factions, or disengage all together
- Increased workplace stress becomes the order of the day
- Employee productivity and trust sink to low levels
- The organizational focus shifts from the mission to the conflict
- Turnover increases, culture suffers, and employee attraction becomes more difficult
- We start to create conflict-based business practices that hold us back instead of success-based business processes that move us forward.
Any one of these issues will hit your business where it hurts, but taken together, they can be a lethal blow.
Who is fighting who?
Conflict can show up in a variety of different ways. Common examples include:
- Management vs. subordinates
- Sales vs. marketing (or other departmental divides)
- Tenured employees vs. new employees
- Union vs. non-union employees
- Corporate mentality vs. local mentality
- Status quo vs. change-makers
No matter what groups or individuals are involved in the conflict, the cause is almost certainly the same: The inability to understand an alternative point of view.
What are they thinking?
We’ve all had plenty of these moments. The ones where we literally have no idea how an individual or group of people reached a particular conclusion or why they reacted in a particular way. Sometimes, all you can do is shake your head.
But this lack of understanding doesn’t have to be a given. We can learn to relate to people in ways that help bridge the gap.
Here are several ways to mitigate misunderstandings and the conflict that often comes as a result.
Cover Your Bases
Sometimes, the causes of workplace conflict are pretty simple: People have different views of about what is expected from them and their teammates, they’re frustrated by their lack of power, or they don’t feel supported or appreciated.
Communicate – Make sure everyone in your organization has a clear definition of their individual roles and responsibilities, where they fit in with the rest of the team, and how they contribute to the overall company vision. Conflict is much less likely to show up when everyone is on the same page.
Empower success – Once you’ve defined roles and responsibilities, you must also provide adequate tools and resources for everyone to perform well and achieve their goals. Scarcity breeds conflict. So does frustration. Make sure your team has what they need to be successful.
Focus on the team – A little competition is healthy, but too much competition will eventually result in an every-woman-for-herself mentality. Resist rankings, comparisons, and fostering a winner-takes-all mentality. Nothing squashes conflict better than a tight-knit team that looks out for each other.
Show appreciation – You can have the best communication, resources, and team in the world, but still end up with an organization riddled with conflict. How? By neglecting to acknowledge the value and success they bring. Thank your employees, recognize their work, and appreciate them as people. These three simple things will go a long way toward reducing conflict in your company.
Take off your filters
We all see the world through a particular lens. Our tendency is to take one particular story we’ve created or believe, and then use it as the filter for everything else that comes through. The result of this behavior is that any story that doesn’t conform with ours is automatically seen as wrong.
But is it really? If two people see the same incident and describe it in different ways, is one of them completely right and the other one completely wrong? Chances are both stories have merit, and differ based on where each person is standing, what they saw, and their primary filtering mechanisms.
For example, if you’ve never been harassed at work, you may not believe that workplace harassment is a big issue. But if you have been harassed at work, you may believe that it’s the biggest issue there is.
Now let’s imagine that each person took off their filters for a moment. Could you understand how a person who hasn’t experienced something might be less inclined to view it as a problem? Could you also understand why someone who has been personally affected by something might be extremely concerned?
Instead of digging your heels in, take a moment to step into that person’s shoes to understand where they might be coming from and what story they are using as a filter. Then, take a step back and start with something you can both agree on.
In this case, consider the evidence. It’s very clear that workplace harassment exists, even if it seems highly unlikely to happen in your organization. And very few people would argue that a workplace harassment case is quick, easy or inexpensive. Start with a shared pool of unfiltered data and work your way out from there.
See the person, not the conflict
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our differences that we forget about the simple fact that there’s a real, live person on the other end of them.
People are complicated. And so are relationships. Reducing an individual you disagree with down to a single action, opinion, or thought isn’t just inaccurate. It’s unhealthy.
When tensions are high, remind yourself that there is a complex person on the other end of your conflict or disagreement - someone who might also shelter foster animals, volunteer at the food bank, or be dealing with personal trauma. Learn to practice empathy in your interactions.
The beautiful thing about compassion is that it tends to spread. If you offer it, you will often receive it in return. And kindness is a pretty great way to diffuse conflict.
Photo by Elnur Amikishiyev