Today, most organizations celebrate workforces that are made up of a variety of attitudes, ideals, and beliefs. Sometimes, however, these differences can lead to workplace conflicts that can be costly if ignored. It is good to recognize that conflicts can be healthy, as effective teams are those in which members feel comfort in expressing disagreement. The key is being able to distinguish between healthy conflicts and harmful conflicts, knowing when to intervene, and understanding the best strategies for reaching a resolution that satisfies everybody involved.
The first step in managing workplace conflicts is understanding why they happen. Without getting to the root of the problem, you cannot ensure that the issue will not keep repeating itself. HR professionals and management should be attuned to areas where conflict typically arises, including:
- Conflict of assumptions. Tension often occurs when people misinterpret others’ intentions or make assumptions.
- Conflict of priority. Because different members of an organization have different responsibilities and goals, sometimes a conflict of priority can arise.
- Conflict of perspective. Differences of age, gender, ethnicity, personality, and more can cause disputes to arise.
- Conflict of tolerances. Because people have different levels of comfort in dealing with conflict, some issues may be escalated more than they need to be simply because of failure to address it.
The second step is knowing when to intervene. A sure sign that intervention is needed is that employees are threatening to quit over the issue. It is far more cost effective to resolve a workplace conflict than it is to recruit and train new employees. It is also necessary to intervene if disagreements are getting personal, and if the conflict is affecting workplace morale and organizational success.
Once it is decided that intervention is necessary, the next step is knowing how to best intervene and achieve a resolution. Here are some effective steps to take to resolve a dispute:
- Schedule a meeting with affected parties to address the problem.
- Get both sides to agree what exactly the disagreement is.
- Establish a common goal for both parties, even if it is as simple as “Find a resolution for this issue”.
- Discuss and brainstorm ways to meet the common goal.
- Identify potential barriers to reaching the common goal and discuss how they might be overcome.
- Agree on the best way to resolve the conflict.
- Acknowledge the agreed upon solution and define the responsibility each party has in the resolution.
What if intervention from HR is not enough? It is best to address workplace conflicts as soon as possible, on a local level, but sometimes outside help is needed from a mediator, arbitrator, or attorney. Situations where this might be necessary include:
- When potential legal issues, such as allegations of harassment or discrimination, are involved
- When HR isn’t trained to provide the level of assistance required
- When the work environment becomes toxic or flare-ups are verging on bullying
- When there are patterns of recurring issues
The best approach to take towards managing conflicts in the workplace is a proactive approach. Often, problems aren’t brought up to HR until it is too late or the problem has escalated too far. This can be prevented in multiple ways by creating a culture of trust. One way of doing this is by surveying employees regularly on how they feel conflict is handled and taking their feedback into consideration. Another way is to catch people doing things right, and seeking opportunities to praise employees. Dissent that is constructive should not be discouraged, as a workplace where people are afraid to express their opinions is neither productive nor healthy. Finally, it is important to encourage employees to handle the conflict on their own whenever possible, rather than pushing it up the organizational chain. This gives employees the confidence that they can resolve problems on their own.
In conclusion, conflicts in the workplace are normal and even healthy. Sometimes, however, they can turn harmful and require intervention. It is crucial for HR professionals and management to know the signs of when an intervention is required as well as effective strategies for dealing with different types of conflict. It is always prudent to address issues as soon as possible and reach a resolution that satisfies all parties involved, but it is even more important to be proactive in fostering a culture of trust and encouraging employees to resolve disputes amongst themselves whenever possible to minimize the likelihood of conflicts arising in the first place.
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