Work Culture

No Nonsense Ways To Deal With A Workplace Conflict

By on January 16, 2018
Workplace Conflicts are a part and parcel of our lives. When individuals come together to achieve a goal, there are bound to be differences in opinions. As well as personality clashes. Problem arises when such conflicts become either frequent or prolonged. Or even if they go unresolved.
An unresolved or prolonged workplace conflict can affect employees’ productivity. Associated stress in the work atmosphere can also bring down the morale of the team, which is detrimental for the organisation.

Signs of a Workplace Conflict

A heated argument between co-workers is the most obvious sign of things going haywire. However, conflict at the workplace might not always be that obvious. For instance, certain people can choose ‘flight’ in the “flight or fight” response. They might be unusually quiet at meetings or unwilling to volunteer for new tasks. Some common signs of unresolved tension at the workplace are:
  • Fewer inputs at team meetings
  • Passive-aggressive behaviour, such as an employee making an underhanded statement
  • Increased attrition rate
  • Decline in productivity
  • Increased instances of complaints

Common Causes for Conflict at a Workplace

The first step to resolving any conflict is identifying the underlying causes for it. When you understand why people are dissatisfied or disgruntled, it becomes easier to work towards a solution. Psychologists Art Bell and Brett Hart identified common causes of workplace conflict in 2002 and 2009, respectively. These include:
  • Conflict Over Resources: When individuals or teams are sharing a set of resources at the workplace, conflicts can arise. These resources could be human, or otherwise. For instance, availability of the conference room.
  • Conflict Over Different Working Styles: Not everyone works the same way. While some are methodical in their approach, others might follow a more intuitive route. This conflict of different working styles leads to personality clashes.
  • Conflict Over Perceptions: Similar to two people having different working styles, people can also perceive things differently. For example, someone might view a new hire as an additional resource; while another person might view it as a threat to their job or a comment on their incompetency.
  • Conflict Over Goals: Employees can have different set of goals, none more important than the other. When the same set of resources are used to achieve all or parts of these goals, it can give rise of conflicts. Similarly, an employee can be given two different set of instructions for his role from two different managers. This can lead to confusion, and ultimately, managerial conflicts.
  • Conflict Over Deadlines: When a human resource is used by two or more than two teams, conflicts over clashing deadlines can arise.
  • Conflict Over Roles and Responsibilities: A lot of times, employees might be asked to perform tasks that are outside their everyday responsibilities. If it happens too frequently, the employee in question might be disgruntled and dissatisfied, which can lead to workplace conflicts. Similarly, it can also lead to territorial fights between employees and passive-aggressive behaviour.

How to Handle Workplace Conflicts

Once you have honed in on the cause of the conflict, it becomes easier to find a resolution. For instance, if resource-sharing is the cause of the conflict, Cohen-Bradford Influence Model might come in handy. The influence model rests on the principle of reciprocity. By helping someone with something they want, you can get them to do what you want. Here, it becomes important to empathise with the other person and understand their value system. For instance, if the availability of a certain employee is a frequent point of contention, try and understand what’s causing the clashing needs. Work out a solution that’s a win-win for everyone.
Here, training employees to be more empathic and imparting them with negotiating skills is important. Broadly speaking, here are some practical ways of dealing with workplace conflicts once you have found the root cause.
  • Avoid Taking Sides: As a mediator resolving a conflict between two parties, it is important to take a neutral stance. Drop all presumptions and listen to both parties, objectively. Mediating is not about picking a right and a wrong. The goal is to help both parties reach a resolution. Conflicts should also be seen as an opportunity to learn and grow. For instance, managers can use conflicts within teams to identify new leaders and nurture them for future roles in the organisation.
  • Have a Fair Grievance System in Place: In certain cases, mediation might not help resolve the tension. Every organisation should have a good grievance system in place, formal as well as informal. Programs such as Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) are part of an informal grievance system. Such programs help employees reach a resolution without going through administrative channels, which is a formal approach to conflict resolution. Programs such as EAP can also work as counselling for managers on how to handle conflicts within their teams.
  • Adopt an Open-Door Policy: An open-door policy, when implemented correctly, can help establish an environment where employees feel that they are being heard. A well-executed open-door policy can also help find managerial faults in an organisation. There are two factors that largely influence an open-door policy:
    • HR and Managerial Training: Top-level management and the human resource department should be extensively trained in how to address grievances. Seeming apathy from top-tier management can defeat the purpose of an open-door policy – which is to establish trust.
    • Employee Training: The biggest risk with an open-door policy is employees circumventing middle management frequently. This can increase tensions in teams rather than working as a conflict management tool. Employees should be schooled in when it is appropriate to bring matters directly to top-level management. Guidelines should also be in place on steps to take when the conflict is with an immediate supervisor.
  • Holding Peer Reviews: In the case of employee-management conflict, dispute resolution panels may need to be setup. Having peers of the employee as part of such a panel can help in establishing trust in grievance redressal systems. Peer reviews give the signal that the organisation is impartial and keen on resolving conflicts.

Minimising and Avoiding Conflicts at The Workplace

While conflicts are bound to occur in any organisation,every management should strive to minimise them. For instance, making teams that have people with complementing skills can go a long way in minimising conflicts within teams. Segmenting employees according to Myers-Briggs personality type can be a good starting point. Similarly, establish a reporting system for measuring metrics related to conflicts. These metrics should include:
  • Number of grievances in a given period
  • Average root cause of grievances, based on the common causes of workplace conflicts, mentioned above
  • Average closing time for conflicts
These metrics are a good precursor to how well your dispute resolution systems are working. At the end of the day, it comes down to constantly reinforcing an atmosphere of trust that fosters open, honest communication at all times.
It is also important not to avoid conflicts. If the issue at hand is important, conflicts can be used to strengthen relationships and find newer, innovative ways of working. Listen and empathise. At the same time, do not be afraid to speak your mind. Trying to constantly avoid conflicts leads to dissatisfaction at the workplace, which can be detrimental to your physical and mental health.

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