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Quelling Coworker Conflict

Employees who need conflict management

Conflict management isn’t a footnote in a supervisor’s job description; it’s a regular part of the job – and a big part at that. In fact, research shows that human resources managers spend between 24% and 60% of their time managing conflict. Whether you’re in your organization’s HR department or not, dealing with conflict between coworkers is inevitable, and as a manager, it’s your responsibility to ensure it doesn’t get out of hand.

However, this isn’t to say that all conflict is unhealthy. If team members argue about the best way to achieve a goal, it means that they acknowledge each other’s ideas, that they care about what happens, and hopefully it means they’ll come to an agreement based on compromise and collaboration that is better than any particular individual’s idea. Such conflict breeds creativity, innovation, and efficiency, as well as respect and good morale. However, if the conflict stems from issues such as personality clashes, unclear responsibilities, or communication breakdowns, the dueling parties will go out of their way to avoid, undermine, and even backstab each other, leading to a toxic atmosphere that will drive away talent, lower productivity, and blitz your bottom line.

If you find conflict is sending your team off the rails, follow the tips below to get everyone back on track.

Never ignore conflict

One-off outbursts of frustration are bound to happen between employees, and more often than not these kinds of blowups will blow over without you having to jump in. Regardless, it’s important to take note of such an incident in case it turns out to be the symptom of a burgeoning problem. If you see a pattern forming, don’t wait too long to confront it. Continual interpersonal clashes between employees tend to escalate rather than go away. Keep an eye on the situation and make sure you’re ready to intervene sooner rather than later.

Be understanding, not commanding

When you do confront the employee(s) in question, it’s important – ironically – not to be confrontational. As the employer, employees expect you to help solve their problems, not simply demand that they set their differences aside. Therefore, it’s vital for you to empathize with them – and that starts by listening to everything they have to say. Reserve judgment, maintain eye contact, tilt your head to the side, and keep a neutral expression on your face. Avoid nodding as you don’t want to convey agreement. Then paraphrase what they’ve said to show that you’ve listened. State outright that you understand their concerns, and use “giraffe language” to do it – that’s language that focuses on the other party’s needs. So, instead of saying, “Why are you and Bill constantly at each other’s throats?” say, “What would make it easier for you and Bill to work together?” You may also want to consider apologizing – whether the conflict is in any way your fault or not. Apologies are incredibly disarming. Even saying you’re sorry that the employees are in a conflict in the first place is a good starting point for resolving the issue. You may also want to ask them how they would solve the problem if they were in your shoes. Doing so may provide you with ideas, and it could even give you added insight into the source of the conflict.

Find the root cause

Once you’ve gotten the feuding parties to open up, bear in mind that the true cause of the conflict may not be so obvious. Part of identifying the root cause of a conflict is considering what each of the involved parties stands to gain/lose. Once you’ve done that, it becomes even easier to empathize with them and work towards a solution. Chances are, the conflict is the result of competing resources, styles, objectives, vision, or just mutual stress. However, the problem could stem from a deeper issue outside the office. Whatever the case, it’s important to maintain an empathetic stance to get at the truth. Unless you find the real problem, you won’t solve anything.

Bring in a mediator if necessary

Sometimes, no matter how much empathizing, digging, and propositioning you do, the conflict continues. When all else fails, it may be time to bring in a professional, objective third-party mediator to facilitate fair and balanced communication between the adversaries. Although mediation is first and foremost your responsibility as a manager, in cases where your employees see you as someone who’s too close to one or both of them to be objective, it may be necessary to bring in someone they’re not familiar with. Even if the mediator does more or less the same things you’ve tried, the mere fact that neither feuding party is familiar with them adds credibility to their impartiality, which in turn creates a more cooperative atmosphere.

Seize the opportunity

As discussed above, conflict does have its advantages. However, even if the conflict that’s occurring in your workplace isn’t the kind that sparks new ideas and innovative solutions, it’s still useful in that it highlights issues that may have eluded your radar, allowing you to take action and improve your team’s overall performance. Also, since conflict among employees is bound to arise now and again, it’s best to think of each one as an opportunity to hone your conflict management skills. With every quarrel you quell, you’ll find it easier to listen, identify common ground, and extinguish potential conflicts before they erupt – skills that will help you keep the peace not only between your subordinates, but also when you find yourself in a conflict.

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