Elizabeth Grey: Three ways to stop workplace conflict becoming a crisis

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Martin Knize
Photo credit: Martin Knize

It’s a fact of life that not everybody can get on with each other. In our personal lives we can simply avoid the people we don’t like – but in the office we may be forced to deal with those we find difficult, which can sometimes lead to conflict.

A study by CPP Global revealed that 85 percent of employees will experience workplace conflict at some point in their careers. In the UK, 38 percent of employees have endured conflict at work in the past year alone.

These situations are not only harmful to individual employees, but the repercussions can lead to workplace cliques, gossiping, loss of productivity, increased absence and, ultimately, loss of staff. In the most extreme circumstances, this can create security risks as employee morale plummets, leading to carelessness which makes breaches of security more likely.

In extreme cases this can even lead to theft, deliberate security breaches or physical confrontation.

The result is that managers typically spend about three hours per week dealing with employee conflict. Of course this depends on the company – a study by Reybold and Kalish revealed that leaders can spend over 25 percent of their time resolving conflicts.

So what can be done to minimise the impact of workplace conflicts? These three steps can help diffuse situations before they become real business concerns.

1. Have a set strategy in place

Employee conflict can quickly spiral out of control if not dealt with in the right way. Having a set strategy allows you to identify and deal with issues quickly and effectively. You should:

  1. Determine whether management should step in to deal with the conflict.
  2. Take steps to discover the source of the conflict.
  3. Set a time and place to speak to the employees involved.
  4. Establish the facts by asking five key questions: who, what, when, where and how. Make sure both sides of the story are heard and taken into account.
  5. If emotions run high, adjourn the meeting and further examine the situation, then schedule a second meeting.
  6. Confront negative feelings, find common ground, encourage compromise and agree on an approach.
  7. Produce a document outlining the details of the discussion, the agreed behaviour change and the timeline for implementation.
  8. Get feedback from the parties involved in the conflict as to how they think you handled the situation. What do they think you did well? What could have been done better? Did they feel supported? Were they happy with the resolution?

2. Mind your language

It’s important to approach conflict in a sensitive way, as it’s obviously an emotionally fraught situation. Use of language can make a big difference to how an angry employee responds to your attempt to calm things down.

One of the most important considerations is to refrain from using the word “you”, because this makes people feel like they’re being blamed. Instead say “I feel”, as this is a much more subjective expression, which leaves room for the employee to have their say.

George “Doc” Thompson, retired policeman and author of the book Verbal Judo, says you should bear these points in mind when diffusing a tense situation:

  • Be calm under verbal abuse
  • Deflect insults and attacks, saying something like, “I can see you’re upset but…”
  • Don’t show people that they are getting to you
  • Make the issue the central concern, keeping yourself out of it
  • Don’t mention the negative, rather see the good and mention it
  • Empathy absorbs tension, so show you understand the other person
  • Paraphrase the other person, saying things like “Let me see if I understand you…”

3. Build your workplace culture

It goes without saying that conflicts are much less likely to happen in a happy, fulfilling workplace environment. That’s why getting a few things right about your company culture will keep infighting to a minimum.

Lack of respect is a major cause of conflict at work, with 61% of respondents in a recent study citing this as a major gripe. The problem arises from the hierarchical nature of the workplace – many don’t like being told what to do, and those with power often abuse it.

You can help develop a culture of respect at your company by making sure that:

  • Managers treat their teams the right way, ensuring everyone feels valued and supported
  • Employees have frequent one-to-ones where their concerns can be heard
  • Employees have a clear path for progression within the company
  • Any criticism is made in private and not aired out in front of the whole office
  • Praise is given where deserved and employees are rewarded for good work – you could try and implement an internal points scheme
  • Your business is as transparent as possible, with no one kept in the dark about company news, performance or procedures

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About Elizabeth Grey

Elizabeth Grey is a freelance writer from Brighton. She specialises in writing about finance, careers, education and social media. When she's not writing, she enjoys strong coffee, fiendishly difficult SuDoku puzzles and exploring the countryside near her home. Find out more about her work https://elizabethgrey.contently.com.

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