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How to manage employee conflict

Kerrie-Anne Chinn
2018-08-19

No one likes working in a tense, hostile environment. When conflict arises between employees, it doesn’t just impact the staff members involved, but has a negative effect on the whole team and organisation.

That’s why it’s so important for managers to know how to deal with employee conflict – quickly, effectively, and appropriately.

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When you think about it, we spend a considerable amount of time with work colleagues. And just like any family unit or friendship circle, things can’t always be expected to run smoothly.

A certain amount of tension in the workplace can be considered normal. It can even lead to the generation of new ideas or ways of doing things. However, things become much more serious if a workplace disagreement or discussion turns into ongoing conflict between two or more staff. Like any conflict, if allowed to fester, it will soon turn the workplace into a toxic environment.

If left unchecked, inter-office politics can result in bullying, harassment, and a negative work culture. It can also lead to poor team performance, low productivity, absenteeism, and high staff turnover – all of which will affect your company’s reputation and bottom line.

Whatever the reason behind the conflict, its best to deal with it sooner, rather than later, before it impacts further on your team and their performance.

Keeping calm in an environment of conflict

When there’s conflict going on in the workplace, whether it’s the office, sales floor, call centre or job site, it’s vital that managers keep calm and lead by example.

When faced with employee conflict, you’ll need to demonstrate more composure and leadership than ever before, helping staff to stay engaged, focused and motivated while you deal with the issue.

Ingrid Fredeen, specialist in ethics and legal compliance training, says it’s important that managers show a commitment to a healthy corporate culture, fostering an environment of ethics and respect in the workplace.

“Managers should feel empowered to remind staff that conversations can quickly turn offensive – and the danger of damage to working relationships and team morale.”

“Remind employees about key policies, including your harassment, workplace violence and business conduct policies. Explain that the organization’s goal is to provide all employees with a dignified and respectful workplace,” Fredeen advises.

Taking steps for conflict resolution

If a discussion turns heated and offensive in the workplace, managers need to take quick action to put an end to conversation.

Taking action and confronting issues head on is part of good leadership. Fredeen recommends taking the following steps to address the behaviour professionally:

  • Avoid attacking the employees personally or taking sides
  • Talk with each employee separately
  • Focus on behaviour rather than opinion, instead of pointing out offensive or inappropriate conduct
  • Be clear that employees (who work for private employers) do not have an absolute right to express personal opinions at work
  • Help the employee understand the consequences for repeat conduct.

The more that you practice taking action on conflict resolution, the easier it will be over time.

Online training is also a great way to help managers continually remind staff of policies and regulations, letting all employees know exactly what behaviour is expected of them in the workplace.

Dealing with difficult employees

What can you do when a particular employee keeps stirring conflict in the workplace?

As a manager or employer, it’s inevitable that at some point you’ll find yourself faced with an employee who is difficult to deal with or seems to have trouble working with others.

Sometimes these team members don’t even mean to be challenging or difficult – they may be experiencing low mental health or have other external factors influencing their behaviour. But you will also come up against individuals who are aware that their actions are negative or obstructive for the team.

When an individual team member is displaying challenging behaviour at work, it’s a good idea to try and understand some of the underlying issues that may lead to their behaviour. You can then find the right strategy to support you in in dealing with that employee’s behaviour in the workplace.

Glen Llopis, author of The Innovation Mentality, presents an interesting view of conflict resolution.

“When dealing with conflict resolution through a lens of opportunity, conflict can be a healthy enabler of growth for your business –and professional growth for all of the people involved,” he says.

Llopis believes that we don’t really get to know someone (or ourself) until we experience a little tension with them. In that way, conflict resolution can be seen as an important part of forming authentic relationships with our employees and ourselves as leaders.

If you’re interested in learning more about conflict resolution in the workplace, there are many online courses and resources available, such as these modules on how to handle difficult conversations and developing a respectful workplace.

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