From minor tiffs over the break-room dishwasher to all-out coworker battles, workplace conflicts are all too common in modern business.
They can derail projects and lower productivity. They waste time and damage relationships. And they can just straight up ruin the vibe.
That’s why we’re going to look at managing office conflict with diplomacy and grace - even when it's something as daft as the air-con settings. With a few smart moves, you’ll be able to make sure that these conflicts stay minor rather than escalating into bigger issues.
But first – why even handle conflict in the first place? What happens if you don’t?
What are the effects of workplace conflict?
Imagine this scenario.
One employee wants a colder office, while another needs it nice and toasty. Their back-and-forth starts with passive-aggressive notes and emails. Snarky comments whispered in passing. One person messes with the thermostat while nobody’s looking. The other wears a scarf and gloves at their desk just to make a point. It’s all a bit ridiculous – until it starts to cause genuine problems.
An awkward atmosphere spreads through the team. Everyone knows the two are starting to hate each other, and it’s beginning to interfere with work. It’s a distraction for the two employees, their surrounding team-mates, the human resources department, and the manager who has to step in and sort it out.
Unresolved conflict can have consequences for all involved:
- Increased stress
- Disrupted work environment
- Increased staff turnover
- Poor customer experience
There are different types of conflict, too:
- Office politics
- Disagreements over business strategy
- Personal issues from outside work
- Accusations of unfairness
- Bullying or discrimination
The best way to dampen the effect of these is prevention. Rather than wasting energy stepping in every time a shouting match pops up, build a peaceful company culture instead. Here’s how you can make that happen.
The best methods for preventing workplace conflict
Conflict management doesn't need to be an arduous process. Here are some simple but effective things you can do to stop things flaring up.
1) Set clear expectations
It's important that your team members know what's acceptable and what isn't. Establishing reasonable, clear boundaries will help keep people happier.
And putting it all down in a short behaviour guide can be really helpful. This way, you can eliminate the grey areas and everyone knows where they stand.
Something dead simple, like a paragraph or two on 'how we communicate with each other', could be really useful to keep people on track. It could contain ground rules like:
- All feedback goes in the #Feedback channel on Slack
- Be honest and open but only in a constructive way
- Say what you mean but don't be an absolute 🍆 about it
These are all simple enough guidelines without having to write a massive document on what people can and can't say. But it will guide your culture in the right direction, and you can refer to it in future when discussions are starting to get a little heated.
These guidelines don't necessarily have to be dictated by your HR department. If you collaborate with your team to develop these company values, you can help everyone build working relationships, make your employees feel valued, and nurture a healthier company culture.
2) Minimise stress for everyone
You can't deny that stressed employees are more likely to be uptight and sensitive, which increases the risk of an office argument occurring. Research indicates that stress doesn’t just cause adverse health effects, but also makes people more irritable with others. It’s not good for team dynamics.
So how are your team's stress levels? What's stressing them out? What measures do you have in place to help with stress? What else can you do? There are some simple steps you can take, like:
- Promoting a healthier work-life balance
- Regulating their workloads
- Avoiding micro-management
- Make sure everyone's taking their holidays
3) Promote effective communication
Poor communication skills inevitably lead to more conflict. By making the effort to encourage openness and talking properly, you can really lower the likelihood of arguments flaring up. Some ways you can do this are:
- Check in regularly with your team. Ensure everyone is on the same page - you'll find it helps avoid miscommunication and resulting arguments. You'll find folks are enlightened by the opportunity to vent their concerns and address issues before they get out of hand.
- Give proper feedback. By doing this regularly, you help your employees develop. Don't just limit feedback to performance reviews; incorporate it into everyday conversation. Informal chats and Slack messages work just as well as serious meetings.
- Practise active listening. This is one of the most important listening skills you can have, and does take a bit of emotional intelligence. But it’s great for connecting with people and getting them to open up. Active listening simply means being attentive and engaging with what people are saying, rather than just nodding and waiting your turn to speak.
4) Encouraging constructive disagreement
“Okay, so you disagree. How can we turn this into a positive?”
Differences of opinion don’t have to cause a block. They represent a challenge your team can overcome together.
When conflict arises, encourage workers to focus their efforts on creative solutions to work around it, rather than getting each other to admit to being ‘wrong.’
So how can you do this? Get them to work together. By going through brainstorming or problem-solving tasks together, they’ll learn more about the way each other thinks. They might disagree, but faced with a goal to hit collaboratively, they’ll have to work around their differing opinions and make room for everyone’s point of view. You could try team-building games, but having a real business task to work on will give it more purpose and feel less forced.
This is a healthier way to prevent conflict in the workplace which, when used well and managed, can actually improve things. It can push people to challenge ideas, and re-think their decision making. Creativity often comes from positive friction, and that's something you want to encourage.
5) Have a good conflict resolution process
Sometimes, no matter how much you try to prevent it, arguments will happen. It’s important to know how to pacify things before they get too uncomfortable.
Here’s a few steps you can take to take the heat out of a serious barney:
- Address it early. Acknowledge, discuss, and address the conflict as soon as it arises so you can stop things spiralling out of control.
- Gather all the facts. Find out what really caused the argument. It might have flared up because of something petty, but is there a deeper root cause at hand?
- Find a compromise. Encourage the involved parties to share their perspectives and listen to each other with an open mind. Identify a course of action that finds common ground for everyone and reduces potential for future argument.
- Foster clear communication. Make sure those involved are talking to each other amicably and professionally to sort things out.
- Monitor the situation. You don’t have to hover around and micromanage – just keep an eye on things for a while and check in when it’s appropriate. How’s their body language? Are they working together or just tolerating each others’ company?
It’s a simple process to resolve conflict in the workplace, but remembering to follow it could serve as a valuable template for keeping things running smoothly.
Keep the peace by staying prepared
When conflict is unhealthy, it can damage your company culture, reputation and productivity. But when it’s managed well and people can solve their disagreements healthily, it can be a catalyst for teamwork and creativity.
Your conflict resolution skills can really be tested when things get heated, but there’s no need to panic. If people start to understand how your culture deals with arguments, they’ll be less likely to start in the first place.
Everyone has a part to play – managers, HR professionals, employees, and company owners. You need to deploy smart conflict resolution strategies as well as set the example through positive behaviour.
By doing things the right way, you should be able to keep things a bit more peaceful.