If left unchecked, conflict can be like poison to a team’s productivity, impacting on everything from engagement and morale, to collaboration and communication. It is therefore critical that any conflict is spotted as early as possible and dealt with in the necessary way.
Conflict in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, some conflict is inevitable when you have a team of individuals working together, as people are bound to have differing views and opinions. But under certain circumstances, conflict can escalate from healthy debate to something more sinister, and this can be extremely damaging.
Take preventative measures
When it comes to managing conflict amongst your staff, the first aim should be to prevent escalated conflict in the first place. This is not always easy, but there are a number of measures that can be put in place in order to increase your chances of spotting and resolving conflict early, or preventing serious conflict altogether.
Perhaps the most important aspect is clear communication. It is up to organisations to set a culture of open, honest dialogue through which people are encouraged to listen to each other’s points of view, and the job of line managers to facilitate this process at team level. Providing people with a platform to express their thoughts and feelings means that any conflict is more likely to be out in the open before it goes too far.
After communication, pro-activity is probably the most important factor. If you are aware of conflict and do not take steps to resolve it, you effectively give the conflict permission to continue. Simply ignoring minor conflict in the hope it will resolve itself is not a safe bet, as you risk the conflict escalating into something much more significant, and ultimately much harder to deal with.
Cultivate emotional intelligence
When it comes to spotting and resolving conflict at individual and line manager level, the role of emotional intelligence (EI) cannot be underestimated. Cultivating EI within your staff can therefore be an extremely effective way to minimise conflict within your business.
Obviously you can’t ‘force’ somebody to become more emotionally intelligent, but what you can do is help people better understand what emotions are and how they can be managed and used in a productive way.
Coaching is a great way to develop EI in staff, and empowering line managers to be able to coach effectively can have a powerful impact. By asking the right questions, coaching encourages people to reflect upon things in a reasoned way. This could work in a conflict situation, for example, by getting an employee to think about why a colleague might have reacted negatively to something they said, or vice versa.
Like conflict itself, EI can be largely affected by the facilitation of open communication.
Be the mediator, not the judge
From a HR point of view, it is essential that any steps taken to resolve conflict are done in a way which gives all parties equal opportunity to have their say. It goes without saying that all parties will have their own reasons for engaging in the conflict and feeling the way they do about the situation, so it is not the place of the line manager or HR department to cast judgement.
The ultimate aim is to resolve the conflict, not to find out who is to blame. As soon as you start apportioning blame, you risk alienating people and creating feelings of resentment, and it likely won’t be long before the conflict returns. Instead, arrange a private, confidential meeting with the affected individuals and let everybody air their views. Actively listen to each of them in turn, while encouraging them to listen to each other. Facilitate a ‘safe’ forum in which the affected employees can share their feelings without fear of reprisal, and help them work through the conflict themselves rather than deciding who is ‘in the right.’
Look for positive outcomes
Conflict is part of everyday human interaction, so it will inevitably find its way into business situations. The key to effectively managing conflict is being aware of it, and this means facilitating clear communication between employees, line managers, and HR. Then, it a pro-active approach is required in order to prevent it from escalating.
There is no need to fear conflict – if managed correctly, it can actually be constructive rather than damaging. If you want innovation and creativity within your organisation, for example, you need people to question and disagree with each other from time to time. The important thing is not to let that harmless disagreement turn into something deeper.