How to Deal With Conflict in the Workplace in a Productive Way

Learn How to Deal with Workplace Conflict to Keep Your Team Productive

Everyone in the workplace can point to a source of conflict in their role. It can come from so many different angles, and most will see it as a hindrance to them doing their best. However, there really is no escaping from conflict. It’s bound to happen when you get any group of people together. The key is, learning how to deal with conflict in the workplace and finding a way to resolve those conflicts in a healthy manner.

As a leader, you want your team to be happy in their roles and be able to handle any conflicts that arise. This guide will show you why conflict happens, why it should be handled, and how to handle employee conflict in the workplace.

Understanding how to deal with conflict in the workplace

Learning how to deal with workplace conflict is key to a productive team

Handling Vs. Ignoring Conflict

As you’re reading this, it should be assumed that you want to find ways to handle conflict without causing more problems in the workplace. However, there are many leaders out there that would prefer to ignore conflict altogether.

You’ve probably come across these leaders yourself, in your career. They see conflict or are even brought conflict by their team, and they choose to ignore it. They may tell those involved that sort out the issue themselves, or even just pretending that it isn’t happening.

Of course, you’ve seen the results of this. These conflicts will not go away on their own. They can grow to a head, and create real problems within the workplace. In the worst case scenario, it can lead to projects stalling, lost profits, or high-performing team members to leave.

Handling conflict well is a sign of strong leadership. If you want your team to be able to work to the best of their ability, you’ll need to learn how to do so.

The Importance of Knowing How to Deal with Conflict in the Workplace

There’s no way you can avoid conflict in the workplace. You’re staffed by humans, and humans are never perfect. That’s something you need to understand right away. While it’s frustrating when staff members aren’t able to work at full capacity on a given day, that’s to be expected.

Being human, they are also going to struggle with conflict. When this arises, it’s going to cause several problems in the workplace. Firstly, there’s the issue of work projects. If there’s a clash on how to complete a project, then nothing will be done until it’s resolved. You may find some members aren’t able to compromise, as they feel their ideas are better. You need to be able to step in and find the common ground that they need.

Then, there are interpersonal issues. Arguably, these are even more important. For instance, say you have one team member that’s causing problems for someone else. They don’t agree with their work style or even their personality. That causes them to create conflict with the other staff member. That’s not only going to affect them, but the workplace as a whole. Again, this can lead to more problems down the line that are going to be harder to solve.

As a leader, you will want to solve these conflicts before they become too much of a problem. If you can do that, you’re showing your team that you care about their emotional well-being, as well as the work that they do.

The Causes of Workplace Conflict

You know how important it is to know how to handle employee conflict at work, but you need to be able to recognise conflict in the first place. What causes workplace conflicts? How can you be sure that you need to step in?

‘There are two main causes of conflict in the workplace: communication and emotions’ says recruiter Gerald Lynn from Origin Writings and Write My X. ‘When you know this, you’ll quickly be able to pick up on any conflict that’s happening.’

2 colleagues using communication to deal with conflict in the workplace

Communication is one of the key sources of workplace conflict

You may well have encountered communication problems without even realising it in the past. For example, have you dealt with not having the right information for a project? Perhaps you were given information late or even given the wrong information. Even if you’re given the right information but you don’t know what to do with it, that’s a communication conflict.

Then there are emotional conflicts. We touched on this above, and again, you’ve very likely seen this in the past. If you’ve ever seen someone get worked up during a meeting, and insist that things are done their way, that’s an emotional conflict. That person has allowed their emotions to rule their decision, then they’re causing conflict.

What are some examples of conflict in the workplace? Here are some examples that you may well have seen over your career.

Leadership Conflicts

This is something you very much need to be aware of. All leaders have a different leadership style, and that’s ok. Some will be warm and inviting, while others will be data and deadline driven. These are both good leaders, but they need to understand how their style works with their team. If the style causes problems with the team, then that’s a conflict that needs to be resolved.

Creative Idea Conflicts

You may not even think of this when you think of workplace conflict examples, as it’s all a part of the creative process. Think back to the last time you were brainstorming ideas for a project. You and the others on the team would have had different ideas about how to go ahead. You would have discussed them, and come up with an idea to go ahead with.

Workstyle Conflicts

 As well as different leadership styles, there are different working styles, too. For example, one worker may do their best when working alone, while others need to be a part of a team to really do their best. When a team has to work together, they will have to handle each others’ differences. That can cause more conflict, but a well-managed team will be able to get past that. 

Personality-based Conflict

Again, as a leader, you’ll need to understand your team are human, and as such, they are all different. With this in mind, you’ll see personality clashes from time to time. In a well-managed team, the team will be able to work together and get past the clashes. If not though, these can get worse until it all comes to a head.

Discrimination

This is the most serious conflict you can come across as a manager, and you need to be prepared for it. You may see conflict arising from discrimination based on age, gender, sexuality, race, and so on. If you see this, you may need to get HR involved. It’s important to show your team that they are valued no matter who they are and to handle conflicts as soon as they arise.

These are just a few examples of workplace conflicts. Now you know what you’re looking for, you’ll be ready to start handling them productively.

Signs Of Conflict

How can you spot conflict in the workplace? There are a few signs that you should be looking out for, so you can take action when needed.

Signs showing one way pointing

It’s important to be able to spot signs of workplace conflict

Creation of Cliques

There will always be some employees that get on well with others, and create friendships. That’s fine, but if you see cliques forming that’s a sign that people are creating conflicts with other groups. Gossiping and whispering in the corridors are all signs that there’s something afoot.

Avoidance

If there’s a conflict brewing, those involved may avoid each other. That can show itself as avoiding eye contact, avoiding communication whenever possible, even avoiding greeting each other.

Unhappy Expressions

As you walk around the office, you can get a feel for the atmosphere. If there’s minimal conflict, then the office will feel lively and energetic. However, if problems are arising, you may see staff members looking unhappy, or stressed out. Of course, this may be due to personal problems, but it’s always a good idea to leave your door open to your staff so they can come to you if needed.

Agitated Staff Members

This is a more obvious sign of conflict and a sign that a conflict has gone too far. You may find a staff member that’s agitated, or even shouting. This will be something you want to intervene in quickly.

Direct Complaints

This is probably the most obvious sign of conflict. As a good leader, you’ve encouraged your team to come to you if they have any concerns that they need to raise. They may not come to you but go directly to HR depending on whether you have a dedicated HR department. If not, the responsibility will fall to you.

How to Handle Conflict at Work

As a leader, how do you deal with employee conflict in the workplace? There are lots of different ways you can handle them, depending on the type of conflict and how long it has been going on. Here are some conflict management techniques in the workplace that you can use.

Define What You Expect From Your Team

This is something you can do before you even see a conflict on the horizon. A good manager knows that conflict will happen, so they’ll take steps to mitigate it wherever possible. There are many ways you can define what you’re expecting from your team. Having clear job descriptions is vital in this case. Also, having a well-defined chain of command will go a long way. Creating a policy for making decisions will help in many cases too before a conflict gets worse.

Stay Calm

This is possibly the most important point on this list, especially if the conflict involves you. ‘It’s so easy to let your emotions get the better of you’ says HR manager Donald Farrow from 1 Day 2 Write and Brit Student. ‘You don’t want to accept the reality, as you may feel that you’re in the right. However, that’s just going to make things worse.’

Instead, take a moment to sit back, and look at the conflict rationally. You need to see both points of view in the conflict. If it involves you, take a step back and imagine what you would say if it involved two different people. The most important thing is that you stay level-headed, and be ready to talk to people on both sides without emotion getting in the way.

Woman in yoga floor position keeping calm

It’s important to stay calm when dealing with workplace conflict

Always Face Conflict

As discussed earlier, it’s never a good idea to avoid conflict. It will always be a sign of weak leadership. Instead, face that conflict head-on, and see how you can help resolve it. You can be on the lookout for conflict before it even happens, so you can deal with them before they get worse. 

This gives a good signal to your team that you’re not afraid of conflict. Make it clear to them they can come to you if any issues do arise. You will show them that you won’t shy away from conflicts, and will do your best to improve the situation for everyone.

Understand ‘What’s in it For Me?’

 This is sometimes called the WIIFM Factor, and it’s something you must understand going into a conflict. The conflict has arisen because both sides believe that they are in the right. You need to demonstrate empathy, and put yourself in the other person’s shoes. What’s happening with them? Why are they motivated to stand their ground here? 

If you can do that, you’ll find it’s much easier to solve conflicts. You can understand where each side is coming from, and create a solution that works for them both.

Focus on the Facts

When there’s a conflict between two different people, you’ll see those emotions coming into play again. These make it difficult for them to state their case. When they’re arguing from an emotional standpoint, they won’t be able to ask for what they really need.

For example, you may find two staff members are in conflict because one doesn’t approve of another’s pitch. The one who made the pitch may argue from an emotional standpoint, saying it’s because the other won’t approve the work because they don’t respect them. You can help resolve this by bringing everything down to facts. If the pitch itself is missing something, then that’s something concrete that can be solved. If the pitch is good, and the other person doesn’t have something solid to reject it on, then you can encourage them to put their feelings aside and appraise the work on its own merits.

Don’t Be Afraid to Make Peace

As the leader, when you find yourself in conflict your first instinct isn’t to back down. After all, you’re the person in charge so wouldn’t admitting defeat be a sign of weakness? Not so. If you want your team to respect you, then it’s always smart to admit when you’re in the wrong.

Use the other tips in this list to see if you are in the right. If you’re objective and see that actually, the other person is right, say so. Don’t be afraid to reach out, admit fault where there was fault, and move on. That’s a strong message to put out there, and you’ll show your team that it’s ok to make peace if needed. 

As you can see, there are lots of things to be aware of when it comes to how to deal with conflict in the workplace. They are always going to happen, so it’s your role to help your team resolve them peacefully. The key is to facilitate communication and practice empathy. That way, you can create solutions that everyone can agree with.

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