Handling Conflict by Angela Jones
‘And then one guy pulled a knife; they were really angry, I ended up standing between them…’
An extreme situation for a manager to handle, perhaps, but a real situation that occurred at a place of work. Thankfully, workplace conflict is usually somewhat less violent, but it can still be daunting for a manager to tackle.
Left unchecked, conflict can undermine teamwork, demotivate people and ultimately impact on customer service. Unresolved conflict can simmer for long periods, perhaps affecting staff turnover, and is seen by employees as a sign of weak management.
So how do you know when there is conflict at work?
Some of the symptoms of conflict can be subtle, but could include:
- Silence, and/or defensive body language
- Ignoring someone; avoiding eye contact
- Cliques forming
- Bitching sessions
- Raised voices
If conflict is observed, the manager has a choice; should it be left to run its course, or dealt with? Occasionally, you can allow minor conflicts to occur without intervention, but only if the conflict is constructive, and/or trivial. You should always step in if emotions are aroused, and people are getting upset. Adopt a watching brief, if you are not sure what to do immediately.
Whilst techniques such as separation can be used to reduce or limit conflict, the best way to resolve the situation is to tackle it. You can:
- Discuss the situation with each party, independently
- Try to get them to see the other’s viewpoint. Always talk about the other party with respect; don’t be drawn into negative gossip
- Resolve the underlying cause of the conflict. This may demand compromise by all parties
- Create better conditions for the future; discuss goals that both parties may have in common (e.g., improving customer service, quality measures, cost savings)
- Improve levels of communication, to reduce the chance of recurring conflict
- Tackle the unacceptability of the conflict itself. This is often better later in the conversation, when they have calmed down and can see reason. For example, ‘It is not acceptable to use that language in the office’ or ‘ I am not prepared to tolerate such behaviour at work’. Even better, by asking questions, try and get them to see the unacceptability of what they did. For example, ‘How do you think it came across to the rest of the office when you shouted at Susan in front of everyone?’ or ‘How does that behaviour fit with your goal to be team leader?’
Stay calm and assertive when tackling such issues; treat both parties with respect and use active listening skills throughout. It is often how things are said –and what is not said – that can give clues for speedy resolution.
Six Tips to Minimize Conflict
In the ideal world there would be no conflict! Prevention is better than cure. Here are six ideas to help minimise conflict:
- Work to build an open environment, which gives everyone the opportunity to air their views, both with you and each other.
- Lead by example; discourage gossip, always be discreet yourself. Set high standards, and have clear values that you live up to.
- Be solution focused. Regularly ask the team, ‘What’s wrong and how can we fix it?’
- Encourage positive social interaction. Have fun at work!
- Intervene when you spot early signs of conflict, or the formation of cliques that are working against the team interest.
- Have a clear team vision, which everyone is working towards. Ensure everybody understands his or her role within the team effort.
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