What is conflict in the workplace?
Workplace conflict occurs when there is a disagreement amongst employees due to opposing interests, personalities, beliefs, or ideas. Conflict in the workplace is a natural process when people of different backgrounds work side by side.
Conflict management expert and organizational psychologist David G. Javitch, Ph.D., defines conflict “as tension, which is neither good nor bad. Positive tension, that energy that leads to increased creativity, innovation, and productivity, is a dynamic by-product of two or more people sharing their views, even if their views are inconsistent or out of sync with each other. Negative tension is an unproductive, off-putting, harmful result of people not working together to arrive at a positive solution.”
Wherever people work together, conflict is likely to arise, and it presents a challenge to which management must respond constructively.
Conflict can bear various forms, including lack of cooperation, verbal insults, bullying, anger, poor quality or delayed work, project failure, and more.
Let us explore the types of conflict in the workplace, signs of conflict, and tips for conflict resolution to help you tackle disputes in your organization.
What are the main types of conflict in the workplace?
So many conflicts in life happen because of poor communication, and the workplace is no different. Misunderstandings, closed-mindedness, and passive-aggressive behavior all contribute to workplace conflicts.
Where there is a problem, there is a solution. Or, in our scenarios, where there is a conflict, there is a resolution.
Let’s take an in-depth look at five ways conflicts arise at work that are worthy of mentioning and how you can minimize their negative impact.
#1. Personality conflicts
Clashes due to different personalities are some of the most common workplace conflicts. These conflicts are impossible to avoid because we all have personalities and will not get along with everyone we meet. Personality-based conflict can be challenging and frustrating, but it is beneficial to learn how to work with individuals whose approaches and perspectives are different from your own.
Resolution: Each person has a story to tell. We all carry happiness and accomplishments, but also frustrations and failures. Share your story and listen to the story of the other person. After all, we are not that different.
#2. Task-based conflicts
Regardless of the size of your business, many processes help your organization stay afloat. Often, a lot of cross-functional processes take place within interdependent workflows. Interdependence conflicts arise when one relies on the cooperation, outcome, or input of another.
Resolution: Delegate tasks effectively. Communicate with the team the importance of responsibility and accountability. Clarify the roles of each employee such as they are all on the same page when deadlines approach.
#3. Differences in style
Sometimes conflict occurs because people have different preferences for getting work done. Maybe one of your employees moves at a rapid pace (task-oriented), but another is more concerned about ensuring everyone has a say (people-oriented). Both employees are valuable to your business, but they may find it challenging to work together.
Resolution: The idea of mutual respect and understanding applies here and throughout any interaction involving other people. We may prefer a particular work style, but sometimes in groups, teams must collaborate to develop an idea better than one mind could think up alone – meaning they must learn to deal with each other’s differences. And remember, that teams go through the following stages of development: forming, storming, norming, and performing before working successfully.
#4. Differences in gender/ culture
Conflicts can arise between people because of differences in age, educational backgrounds, personal experiences, ethnic heritage, gender, and political preferences. Ensure everybody abides by the company’s rules, working conditions, and behavioral expectations.
Resolution: If harassment or discrimination, the company must emphasize open-mindedness, acceptance, and understanding. We can all learn to coexist.
#5. Leadership style conflicts
Leaders have different ways of leading their teams. Differences in leadership styles can lead to conflict. Team members can become confused and irritated by these different ways of managing. For example, one leader may be more diverse and inclusive, while another may be direct and short.
Resolution: To solve potential conflicts, you should emphasize mutual respect for differences throughout the company. Also, leaders should be aware of their leadership styles and how they interact with the work styles and personalities of people on their team. They should be able to adjust and connect with their employees no matter their leadership preferences.
How to spot the first signs of a conflict in the workplace?
Recognizing and identifying early signs of conflict at work is the best way to exceed tension and disagreements before they undermine performance and work relations. The good news is there are warning signs to watch out for to help you be more proactive with your conflict resolution techniques. Here’s how you can spot signs of conflict at work:
A. Pay attention to decreased productivity
When conflict arises, workplace productivity takes a hit. Productivity decreases when employees are struggling to get along and work together successfully. If your employees are not engaged in their work and teams, they feel less motivated and focused on their work, which can slow delivery and project completion timelines.
B. Be mindful of turnover and absenteeism
If you suddenly experience a high staff turnover or start to notice employees calling in sick or not showing up for work, you should do some investigating. Avoiding the work environment may be employees’ way of coping with the conflict. Talk to your frequently absent employees to understand if they are experiencing any conflicts that prevent them from showing up for work.
C. Listen for direct complaints from your staff
Pay attention to what your employees are saying directly. Listen to how they talk about their job, colleagues, and work. If they frequently complain, this indicates dissatisfaction and may be a sign of conflict. Take extra care to focus on any negative responses in staff surveys.
D. Note the loss of trust
Trust is essential in workplaces. Distrust may indicate conflict and feelings of stress, depression, and even anxiety. Mind the way employees behave. People change their behavior when they lack trust. For example, they may withdraw from situations, not contribute, and remain quiet, even though this is out of their usual character.
E. Identify changes in interactions amongst employees
The way employees express themselves, primarily if a dramatic shift in behavior occurs, can indicate whether a conflict has or is occurring. Notice if an employee refuses to talk to another one suddenly or repeatedly talks about the same individual in a negative light. Be particularly cautious of rude or inappropriate behavior as this might indicate that the conflict is severe.
How to resolve conflicts in the workplace?
As a manager, you want to be well equipped to manage conflicts in a manner that contributes to a happier work environment. By learning to tackle conflicts appropriately, leaders can embrace the opportunity to create a positive company culture that benefits everyone.
Conflict resolution is integral in the corporate world as it helps distinguish a good business from a bad one. So, as a business owner, what can you do to help resolve a conflict and prevent it from spiraling? Try these seven tips.
#1. Get to the root cause of the conflict
The first thing you need to do in resolving conflict is to get to its root cause.
Allow each party to share their side of the story with you to understand how they feel and why they disagree. Ensure you obtain as much information from both parties as possible and ask questions to gain clarity. Avoid taking sides and hear each person out without any biased perspectives.
As a neutral mediator, you can help both parties discuss their issues in a meaningful and healthy way.
#2. Schedule a time to meet and discuss the conflict in a neutral location
You cannot resolve disputes before talking and working on them. Attempting to talk through disagreements using online methods of communication can lead to misinterpretations. To have a constructive conversation, you need to find a safe environment to talk to your coworker.
#3. Listen actively and let everyone have their say
After getting both parties to meet privately, let them share their side of the story and try not to let one person dominate the conversation. Give them equal time to express thoughts and concerns without favoring the other.
Embrace a positive and assertive approach while in the meeting. Encourage both parties to articulate their ideas openly and honestly, comprehend the causes of the conflict, and identify solutions.
#4. Investigate the situation
After listening to the concerns of both parties, take time and investigate. Dig deeper and learn more about the happenings, involved parties, the issues, and how people feel.
Have an individual and confident conversation with those involved and listen keenly to ensure you comprehend their viewpoints. Try finding any underlying conflict sources which may not be evident or noticeable.
#5. Get insight from your employee handbook
Your employee handbook should be the first point of reference when dealing with office conflict. This handbook should serve as a guide to help you navigate disputes and what disciplinary steps to take if needed. The policies within your handbook must set what qualifies as unacceptable workplace behavior. They should leave little room for interpretation to ensure there is zero confusion.
#6. Identify and work toward solutions both parties can support
Determine a mutually agreed-upon solution to keep everyone on the same page and working toward a shared goal. Each person should understand what you expect of them and what actionable steps they need to take to move the situation forward toward a resolution. If you can’t reach a solution, it might be time to loop in your HR team to develop and direct the next steps.
#7. Follow up and decide preventive strategies for the future
After coming to a resolution, it may be helpful to follow up with the employees involved after a few days or weeks to ensure no additional issues.
Also, decide on preventative strategies for the future and look for lessons you can learn from the conflict and how you handle it. Thus, you know what you can do when the issue resurfaces.
How to resolve workplace conflict remotely?
What about when you and your team work across the country or globe? How can you perform professionally and politely through your issues when you can’t even be in the same room?
Resolving workplace conflict remotely presents its unique challenges, but fear not, you can resolve disputes remotely using tips similar to those described above.
With remote work, communication is crucial. You will have to lean on internal communication, virtual meetings, and phone calls to work through the conflict in a remote environment, but it is doable. Pull all parties together in a virtual meeting after hearing from them individually to discuss the disagreement and voice their concerns. Determine the next steps together and be sure to document them.
Re-communicate those action items in writing to avoid further miscommunication or misinterpretation issues. You should also set a follow-up or multiple meetings to check in with your employees and see how things are going and if the dynamic is improving over time.
You must understand that a conflict-free workplace is not necessarily a good thing. Conflict is both normal and healthy. It is about managing team conflict and creating a culture where dissent is encouraged, and everyone feels safe to disagree.
When managers handle a conflict through appropriate team conflict management activities, they can generate that spark of ingenuity that is crucial to the business's success.