11 steps for managing conflict in the workplace

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Conflict at work is inevitable. At some point tension between people, especially at times of stress, is natural. One of the most challenging roles as a small business leader is to keep the peace and deal with conflict in the workplace (large corporations tend to have HR departments to deal with workplace conflict – small businesses don’t).

It is important that small business owners don’t ignore seemingly petty conflict in the workplace. It can quickly escalate and managing conflict quickly and effectively will stave off further problems.

Conflict slows down productivity and can cause bad feeling amongst a team so effective intervention is essential. Resolving conflicts sooner rather then later can save a lot of time and usually results in a satisfactory outcome for both parties. When conflict is left to fester it has a toxic effect on your culture. That is never a good thing and can be damaging to the success of your business.

1. Look out for the signs

While heated exchanges between employees makes an episode of conflict in the workplace obvious, there are many other forms of conflict that aren’t so easy to spot. Some quieter employees may hide their feelings. It is important to look out for the signs of conflict. Regular check-ins between line managers and employees are a good way of picking up on any problems. Leaders should endeavour to maintain an open-door policy to encourage regular communication.

2. Forget about being right

Misunderstandings happen in the workplace all the time. Approaching conflict with an open mind is essential. Resolving conflict isn’t about being right. This is one of the common mistakes managers make in conflict resolution. The aim should always be to get a positive result, not prove a point. And it is important to always consider the possibility that you may be at fault or have a skewed view of the people involved in the dispute.

3. Take a step back

Figure out how you are feeling before you launch into handling conflict. It can be a good idea to talk the issues through with someone removed from the situation, such as a friend who isn’t part of your company.

4. Embrace conflict

View conflict as an opportunity to improve communication in the workplace. Never be tempted to pretend nothing has happened and sweep minor conflicts under the carpet. Small problems can escalate if not nipped in the bud.

5. Always meet face to face

Never deal with conflict via email or phone. People behave differently via email than they do face to face. It’s much easier to read a situation when you can gauge expressions and body language. This enables you to react appropriately. Tone and emotion can’t be communicated in an email. Subtle nuances can get missed when dealing with conflict via email.

6. Listen

One of the most important conflict resolution skills is being able to listen. Impatience can get in the way of listening and of skillful conflict resolution. Being able to actively listen is fundamental to resolving conflict. Find out more about active listening here.

7. Show respect

Respect in the workplace is incredibly important. Just as respect in the workplace helps to prevent conflict, when there is a disagreement, respect will help you to resolve conflict. Treating people with courtesy, politeness and kindness throughout conflict resolution will encourage a calm and respectful discussion. Never talk over another person, butt in, put people down or disparage them.

8. Give your employees a voice

Conflict manifests easily when employees don’t feel they have a voice. Helping employees voice concerns can help to dissipate potential conflict. Giving employees an effective voice will help problem solving and improve conflict outcomes.

9. Encourage responsibility

Conflict at work is inevitable. People will always have different viewpoints and conflict isn’t always a bad thing. Constructive conflict can be a great learning curve for business. However, negative and disruptive conflict isn’t good. It’s important that people take responsibility for their differences and don’t allow them to progress into full-blown disputes. Encourage employees to take responsibility and not look for blame. Leading by example is a good place to start.

10. Discuss what could have been done better

Build a process for evaluating behaviour. There’s always something that could have been done better. Creating a safe space for employees to evaluate their own behaviour is an important aspect of conflict resolution.

11. Impart sound advice

If you would like your employee to behave differently in the future, use factual information to explain the problem, illustrate why it’s a problem and how it impacts on others and their work. Ask for a small manageable change in behaviour to rectify the situation. This should preferably be something quite small and specific that you can support and measure.

For help on managing conflict at work, see the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service’s advice here.

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Annie Button is a Portsmouth based writer and recent graduate. Annie enjoys sharing her experiences and knowledge through her blog posts and has written for various online and print publications.