In an ideal situation, each of your employees would get along perfectly with everyone else. Everyone would be in agreement about everything, from your company’s business plan to your growth strategies to how much coffee creamer gets stocked in the cabinet each week.
Unfortunately, unless you are your company’s sole employee, there will always be disputes in the workplace. These conflicts can lead to problems for your team and your business if you or your company’s human resources (HR) professional can’t resolve them quickly and effectively.
Don’t Ignore the Issue
It might make it easier for you to pretend everything’s perfect and proceeding like the ideal scenario described above, even when there’s a problem. Or maybe you’re aware of the existence of a problem, but you keep telling yourself, “It’s no big deal. It’ll blow over in a day or two.
Small problems, if left untreated, can turn into big problems. Managers, supervisors and company
leaders need to be willing to acknowledge the existence of conflict and resolve it before it becomes worse.
Two (at Least) Sides to the Story
The nature of conflict means that, at minimum, two individuals are involved. You may hear about a conflict through idle chatter at the coffee pot or as you pass by
in the hallway. Or maybe an employee comes to you to discuss the conflict, whether he or she is a participant or not.
Supervisors and managers may be tempted to draw conclusions about the conflict based on these observations and interactions. But effective resolution of the conflict hinges upon the manager understanding the true nature of the dispute, not just how one side sees it.
Meeting with the two (or more) people involved in the conflict is a must. Preferably, the individuals’ supervisor should meet with the employees together, providing them each equal time to discuss the situation and their perspective on it. Separate meetings, though potentially more comfortable, may turn into attempts by each employee to convince the supervisor that they are right. This takes time and energy away from the true goal: successfully resolving the problem.
Sometimes, a supervisor and a subordinate are the two participants in a workplace conflict. In that case, a higher- level supervisor and/or HR should be brought in to mediate the dispute so that each participant can be treated fairly.
When you get the participants into a meeting, remember to keep control of the situation. Don’t let the meeting degenerate into a rehashing of the conflict or argument that led to the meeting in the first place. To help keep the meeting and the participants on task, it might help to set some ground rules. For example, avoid inflammatory language such as: “I hate it when you don’t get me the reports I need,” or “The way you talk about me is awful!” Instead, encourage the employees to speak calmly and as unemotionally as possible as they express their concerns.
You might also consider setting time limits for each person to speak so one employee doesn’t dominate the conversation at the other’s expense. If you set guidelines such as these, your job as the mediator is to enforce them. Be prepared to end the meeting if the employees cannot adhere to the rules you set.
Less Speaking and More Listening
Many, if not most, conflicts arise from frustration that one’s viewpoint either isn’t being acknowledged or isn’t thought of as important. Attempts to convince the other person — not to mention co-workers
and management — that one’s viewpoint is the “right” one can escalate into workplace conflict.
So, in a conflict-resolution meeting, one approach you could take is to require each participant to paraphrase what the other person says before he or she can respond. For example, if one person says, “Having to do all the restocking of the coolers by myself when you’re on duty with me really frustrates me,” the other person would say, “You’re upset when I don’t help with the restocking.”
This technique can serve two purposes. First, each participant will appreciate the effort the other person is making to acknowledge and understand his or her problem. Second, if one person is misunderstanding what the other is trying to express, this gives the participant or you as the mediator the chance to correct the misperception. This can lead to a quicker resolution of the problem.
As the mediator, your job isn’t just to sit back and watch. You should be actively engaged in the conversation, helping to guide it when it veers and defusing tempers before they escalate. Throughout the course of the meeting, you should provide feedback. Perhaps one or both of the employees are focusing on minutiae instead of coming to the real cause of the conflict. Perhaps they are both acting without the presence of important information. Or maybe you, as a third party, can see an overarching problem that the participants in the conflict cannot. If communication stalls, prompt the participants by asking a question or talking about what you see.
Don’t be afraid to offer your perspective on the matter. Maybe one of the participants is rambling on, and you can get the conversation back on track by concisely summarizing the issue. Tell the employees what you’re observing or what you’ve noticed and ask them their thoughts on the points you raise. Not only can doing so help to defuse an awkward or angry situation, but bringing the employees together to pinpoint the real issue can also facilitate its speedy resolution.
Find the Resolution, and Act on It
If you’re leading the meeting in a supervisory capacity, it’s your job to help the employees find a way to end the conflict quickly and effectively. That might involve brokering a compromise between the two parties — for example, Ralph agrees to help cover Sue’s cash register while she restocks, and Sue agrees to take turns with Ralph on the restocking when they’re working together.
Other times, the issue at hand requires a swift resolution from the supervisor. In these cases, make sure you have all the information you need from all the people involved, and then make your decision as quickly as possible. Dragging out a conflict while people wait on you to decide makes things harder for everyone, and it could even spawn new conflicts in the meantime.
Document What Happened
This step, often skipped, can be important in any later corrective actions, disciplinary measures or even terminations. With your HR professional, carefully and accurately document the nature of the conflict, who was involved and what was done to resolve it. If an employee decides he or she is unhappy with your resolution of the conflict, a lack of documentation could leave your company open to allegations of preferential treatment, a hostile work environment or others.
Remote Conflicts With more employees teleworking than ever, managers must recognize that workplace conflict can occur even when working remotely. Workers have become more reliant on video calls and messaging apps, but even with these innovative solutions for remote work, conflict can still arise. According to a recent study from MyPerfectResume, 81 percent of remote professionals have experienced workplace conflict. Even if managers have pitch-perfect responses to in-house conflicts, resolving conflicts between remote employees can require rethinking their strategies.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) collected recommendations from employers who resolved conflicts between remote employees. Kent Oyer, CEO at Chicago-based MX Guardian, said contacting employees involved in the conflict via a confidential phone or video calls or email before setting investigate the matter, get evidence from others, and find out what applies to the discussion and what is still required to solve the problem,” he said.
Communication is important, but overcommunication is key. “Because we’re limited by technology to have those face-to-face interactions, it’s important to overcommunicate to get a point across and
avoid potential conflict,” said Sharon Heimowitz, director of people at Cobalt, a technology testing firm in New York City. “To prevent conflict, managers should schedule standing group and/or individual meetings to open-door policies are also important, she added. The policy creates a strong relationship between employees, as it allows them to discuss anything with their bosses even when working remotely.
Calm, Cool and Collected
A workplace rife with conflict is a great setting for TV shows and movies — not your business. Acknowledging, resolving and moving past the conflicts that arise are important steps in keeping your business running smoothly and steadily.