Conflict is an inevitable part of human relationships. It’s no different in the workplace.
This doesn’t mean it’s easy to manage, however. Speak to any business owner or leader, and they’ll tell you one of their biggest headaches is employee conflict. From Jan in Accounts gossiping about others in the lunchroom to two Senior Executives clashing in a power struggle, the conflict impacts your organization.
Every year, approximately $359 billion is lost in paid hours dealing with conflict, and countless more from absenteeism and lost engagement. It’s not just those involved who are affected either —ultimately, your bottom line suffers.
The key to running a successful business is learning to skilfully navigate conflict.
What’s Causing Workplace Conflict?
The best way to solve any issue is to understand the root cause. When it comes to workplace conflict, causes fall into three broad categories:
1. Personality Differences
Everyone brings a unique set of experiences to the workplace, which manifests themselves differently. Some employees value directness and confrontation, while others are more reserved and prefer to approach issues softly. When these personality differences aren’t understood and accommodated, conflict naturally occurs through the inevitable clashes.
When employees feel they are in a zero-sum game against their colleagues, a hostile environment results. To further their own agendas, staff feel they have to sabotage and get ahead of each other, leading to ill feelings and conflict.
3. Value Differences
In today’s multi-cultural world, employees with wildly different value sets are required to work alongside each other. When these value sets aren’t effectively understood, the ground is ripe for conflict.
Although caused by various factors, the very root cause is communication. None of the influences above is inherently wrong—in fact, competition and rich differences in personalities and backgrounds are an immense advantage for an organization! Issues arise when poor communication around these differences allows them to erode your team culture rather than enhance it.
Manage Conflict Through Improved Communication
Thankfully, communication is also the answer to managing workplace conflict. If conflict is like friction, communication is the lubricant that prevents that friction from causing damage. Leaders need to constantly identify differences within their teams and communicate these to ensure workplace conflict doesn’t have anywhere to take root.
Here’s a closer look at this process.
Communicate What Is OK
Conflict management 101 begins with defining appropriate behavior. This may seem straightforward, even unnecessary, but many have fallen into this trap before! Never assume your employees know the boundaries.
Employees may have come from workplaces with toxic environments where unhealthy behavior was rife. Your communication must leave no room for ambiguity about what’s tolerated. Tools for communicating include:
- Company policy – DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion)
- Regular communication from the top
As well as more engaging approaches such as story sharing and regular company updates.
Given what we know about the causes of conflict, it would be foolish not to front-foot some of these areas. Take a moment to identify some of the differences within your teams and areas where competition may be at unhealthy levels and address these.
This can be as easy as including more diversity initiatives into your company calendar to ensure your teams understand each other’s backgrounds or having a facilitated team activity with opportunities for members to discuss their personal beliefs.
Understand What Makes Others Tick
When conflict does arise, it’s critical to put yourself in each individual’s shoes. For example seek to find answers to these questions:
- What motivates them?
- In this conflict, what are their objectives?
- What are they looking to gain that is causing this conflict?
If two of your reps are intentionally sabotaging each other’s sales, take the time to understand why this unhealthy competition has arisen. It may be because they feel they’re competing for the same market share. Therefore is there a way that territory can be split evenly to eliminate this clash? Or is it because one feels undervalued, and the answer is simply more recognition and development opportunities?
Pick Your Battles
Your role as a leader is to discern whether a conflict is normal and natural or unnecessary and needs to be dealt with.
Understand and become comfortable that not all conflict is destructive and not all disputes can be resolved. Ensure that this is communicated to your teams as communication makes all the difference between employees feeling abandoned and unimportant and empowered with a sense of ownership.
View Conflict As An Opportunity
Inherent in conflict is the opportunity to grow. Two different opinions offer room for both parties to learn and for innovation to occur.
Any organization that seeks to stamp conflict out entirely will create a culture devoid of growth or creativity. Instead, emphasize that conflict is healthy and positive within the proper boundaries. By clearly articulating what conflict is acceptable and unacceptable, you allow employees to have healthy competition over ideas.
As an employee dealing with conflict, the same principles apply. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Let your co-workers know how their actions are being received at your end if they clash with any of your beliefs.
Try to understand your colleagues’ motivations and worldviews, and have these in mind when navigating issues. Front-foot issues as much as possible, and be clear about your expectations of what’s acceptable.
It’s clear that the Achilles heel of conflict is communication. Get this right, and your organization will be well down the road to a healthy working environment.
Improve Internal Communication Through An Intranet Or Collaboration Tools
Perhaps one of the most powerful tools for improving internal communication is a well-run company intranet.
An intranet provides a private network for communication. Your employees can access it securely even when they are remote working.
Your intranet can allow for group pages and chats. Plus it’s where personal items can be regularly shared to develop that sense of culture. Of course, the intranet will also include:
- File-sharing of policies
- Company calendars with a clear insight into upcoming events
- Collaborative working documents
An intranet is one option. You could also use the cloud-based collaboration tools popular since COVID.
There will always be personality conflicts in the workplace. It’s your role to ensure everyone understands what behavior is acceptable. Every new worker changes team dynamics. However, your CEO and managers can personally address every employee, including your remote staff, on the company policy for employee communication and how it creates a fun and productive workplace.