Conflict between coworkers is unpleasant and unwelcome. However unwanted it is, it’s also unavoidable. If left to fester and escalate, such situations can affect performance and output, and they could even lead to the exodus of valuable workers. Therefore, it’s imperative that coworker conflict gets resolved quickly and properly.
Whether minor misunderstandings, perceived harassment, or actual bullying, conflict in the workplace can also create a toxic atmosphere that may affect employees who are not directly involved in the situation. No one, except perhaps your competitors, stands to benefit from workplace conflicts. It may be human nature to avoid conflict, but avoidance is not a step toward resolution.
Thankfully, coworker conflict is not some undoable Gordian Knot. The following insights and practical approaches can help make resolution possible.
As unpleasant as it is, conflict between coworkers is normal, and it’s not always unhealthy. In fact, some of the most productive teams are those in which the members feel comfortable and safe enough to express or address differences and disagreements. Those teams are usually the ones known for improved decision-making, greater thought diversity, and more innovative approaches.
According to CTLGroup HR manager Casey Swartz, a team of clones, in which conflict is entirely absent, is undesirable. Swartz explained that conflicts indicate that changes to processes and procedures are necessary. If any business wants to not only survive but thrive, it needs to adapt and to make occasional changes to the way it operates.
In this sense, conflict is healthy, but as many managers, HR officers, and business owners know, that is not always the case.
New York City-based organizational psychologist Michael Woodward said that determining which conflicts are healthy and which are unhealthy can be a challenging task. He explained that healthy conflicts between coworkers can result in greater trust, and that challenges to the status quo can be beneficial for a business. Conversely, unhealthy conflict is characterized by poor judgement—usually because the conflicting parties made personal attacks and the situation became emotionally charged.
If such conflicts get ignored, the results could be far worse than an unpleasant atmosphere. According to VitalSmarts co-founder and author Joseph Grenny, every conflict that you ignore could end up wasting as many as eight hours of company time; this results from employees gossiping and engaging in other activities that waste time and decrease productivity.
In business, the core causes of conflict are usually:
Communication: A lack of communication between staff leads to feelings of sabotage, exclusion, or lack of control.
Skills: An employee may lack certain skills that another employee expects them to have. This can lead to issues with the delivery of work, and may affect morale and confidence.
A lack of information: If an employee doesn’t have the relevant data to perform their job, they’ll feel frustrated. Similarly, if the information they have is ambiguous or incomplete, resentment may become an issue.
Environment: The workplace or current working situation can lead to disagreement. This is especially true in the case of remote working, where communication has become largely text-based. With text, there’s far more room for interpretation of tone than in face-to-face meetings.
Values: A difference in opinion and personal values may stir up conflict, especially if two strong personalities have differing opinions.
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Some minor conflicts between coworkers will resolve themselves within minutes, hours, or days, because the aggrieved parties come to their senses, apologize, and find a solution. Others might reach a resolution after those involved received a few wise words from a trusted colleague or a manager.
There will be times when HR will need to get involved for the good not only of those employees, but of the whole department and the company. HR involvement in coworker conflict resolution should happen when:
The conflict has got personal
Employees are losing respect for each other
Employee morale is becoming poorer
Productivity and company success are being affected
Employees threaten to resign or walk out
When HR involves itself in a conflict between co-workers, that involvement should be with care. SHRM-CP HR manager Amanda DeBernardi said that she spends approximately 30% of her time at work dealing with conflicts between employees. The experience taught her that the role of HR in conflict resolution is as a facilitator. DeBernardi explained that it’s crucial for the conflicting parties to know and understand that the results are in their hands, and that they are responsible for finding a solution.
Smaller companies, however, may not have the luxury of an HR department. In such cases, the owner may need to get involved, but if other more pressing duties distract their attention, there is the risk that the conflict could escalate and be left unresolved. SME owners faced with situations like that don’t need to despair, as they can approach an external mediator.
Alternatively, they can bring a trusted PEO onboard, and let that company handle HR issues. A PEO can handle all HR, payroll, training, and other admin tasks, and can mediate in disputes or assist with counseling sessions to get to the bottom of a conflict. PEOs offer several advantages, but with employee conflict, they’ll have the required resources on tap. They can get to the bottom of the matter quickly and in the most effective way.
The following tips, inspired by sound HR practice, can help managers, HR officers, and owners of SMEs to help resolve conflicts between coworkers:
Identify conflict early and act quickly—If you notice a potential conflict between coworkers, don’t ignore it. Act before it has a chance to get out of hand, which could seriously affect other employees. Remember, the effects of conflict at work are never limited to those directly involved. The sooner a matter is under control, the less potential widespread damage it can do.
Bring the conflicting parties together—Arrange a meeting with the antagonists. All directly involved should be present, and each party allowed to give a precis of the situation from their perspective, and to do so without interruption. Remind the conflicting parties that finding a resolution comes with discussion, compromise, or negotiation.
If the conflict is tense, bring in a mediator who is impartial and can chair the meeting. This mediator can keep proceedings civil and allow each party to air their grievances fairly.
Choose the right space for the meeting—The meeting should not be a loud discussion in full view of other employees or in the parking area. Meet the coworkers behind closed doors, or if need be, in a neutral space. Tempers will more than likely be running high, and any additional stresses could push a situation to boiling point. A neutral space can add a sense of calm, and a lack of prying eyes or eavesdroppers will make everyone feel more comfortable.
Ask for the facts—Ask questions to identify the exact nature of the underlying problem, and explain how the conflict can negatively impact performance, client relations, customer service, employee morale, and other aspects of the business. Do not focus on the individual personalities. Keep your attention on work issues only, be assertive, and listen objectively and empathically.
Reach a consensus on the nature of the issue—If the conflicting parties are arguing over the facts, ask them what they do agree on. If you can find a point of common ground, you can work from there.
There’s no point in looking for a solution when the problem isn’t agreed upon.
Work process disagreement or personality clash—Identify whether the real issue is a disagreement on work processes, or if it’s a personality clash. Reinforce that disagreements over work are reasonable, expected, and sometimes healthy, while conflict that arises from clashing personalities is both unacceptable and unprofessional.
Identify potential solutions—A solution that favors one party only could lead to resentment and future conflicts between those same persons. It’s important to work toward potential solutions that would be positive for all involved.
It’s best to come up with more than one solution to ensure there’s no bias, or to ask the conflicting parties to provide 3 solutions that they feel would be fair.
Agree on a solution to the problem—After identifying potential solutions, encourage the antagonists to agree on one that meets their needs as well as those of the company. Remember to commit the process and the solution to writing.
Follow up—Don’t assume that the situation is now defused, and the solution works simply because due process has been followed. Have a follow up meeting a week and a month after the conflict resolution. Ask managers and other employees to report back if they feel there is still underlying tension, or the issue remains unresolved.
Conflict between coworkers is a reality faced by every business, but it does not need to get ugly or have unpleasant consequences. It is possible to work toward mutually beneficial solutions. The process may take some time and effort, but to foster a culture of positivity and cohesion, it’s essential. Unhappy employees who are continuously engaging in conflict or caught in the crossfire won’t be productive, and your business will suffer as a result.
About Author: This article is written by a marketing team member at HR Cloud. HR Cloud is a leading provider of proven HR solutions, including recruiting, onboarding, employee communications & engagement, and rewards & recognition. Our user-friendly software increases employee productivity, delivers time and cost savings, and minimizes compliance risk.