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, through to two Senior Executives clashing in a power struggle, conflict has an impact on 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 too.
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 understanding the root cause. When it comes to workplace conflict, causes fall into three broad categories:
- Personality Differences—everyone brings a unique set of experiences to the workplace, which manifest themselves in different ways. Some employees value directness and confrontation, while others are more reserved and prefer to approach issues softly. When these differences in personality aren’t understood and accommodated, conflict naturally occurs through the inevitable clashes that take place.
- Competition—when employees feel as though they are in a zero-sum game against their colleagues, a hostile environment results. To further their own agendas, staff feel as though they have to be sabotaging and getting ahead of each other, leading to ill feelings and conflict.
- Value Differences—in today’s multi-cultural world, employees with wildly different value sets are required to work alongside each other. When these values sets aren’t effectively understood, the ground is ripe for conflict.
Although caused by a range of factors, the very root cause of conflict is communication. None of the influences above are inherently bad—in fact, competition and rich differences in personalities and backgrounds is 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, then communication is the lubricant that prevents that friction from causing damage. Leaders need to constantly be identifying differences within their teams, and communicating around 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 straight-forward, 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—it’s important that your communication leaves no room for ambiguity about what’s tolerated. Tools for communicating this include the basics like company policy and role definitions, as well as more engaging approaches such as story sharing, regular company updates, and a personal address from senior management.
- Be Proactive. 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, as well as 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. 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—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 needing to be dealt with. Understand and become comfortable with the fact that not all conflict is bad, and not all conflict can be resolved. Ensure that this is communicated to your teams—such 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, emphasise that conflict is healthy and positive, within the right boundaries. By clearly articulating what conflict is acceptable and unacceptable, you give employees permission to have healthy conflict 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
Perhaps one of the most powerful tools for improving internal communication is a well-run company intranet.
An intranet provides a platform for communication. Want to ensure everyone understands what behavior is acceptable? Your CEO can make a personal address that gets broadcast to every employee, including your remote staff. Need to build team culture and create a sense of understanding around beliefs? Your intranet allows for group pages and chats to be set up, where personal items can be regularly shared to create that sense of culture. This is just scratching the surface—file sharing of policies, company calendars with a clear insight into events coming up, collaborative working documents—intranet offers a range of tools specifically designed to enhance communication.
If you would like to improve communication in your organization, then contact the team at MyHub for an informal discussion on how a company intranet can help. MyHub is a cloud-based intranet providing business tools that enable better internal communication, improved work processes and sharing of organizational information, as well as more opportunities for collaboration.