Conflict in the workplace can deflate the morale of workers, lower productivity, and possibly result in physical harm. Since many people try to avoid or ignore conflict, they don't learn how to confront it in a constructive, responsible way. Yet, some conflict can actually ignite creative and healthy energy in a business. Managers who know how to deal properly with disputes at work can help equip employees with new leadership skills and empower them to make the workplace a thriving, congenial setting for everyone.
Address conflict head-on
Instead of being afraid of conflict, experts tend to agree that it should be faced directly. "It should be a priority of companies to create an environment in which people are comfortable bringing up conflicts," says Susan Heathfield, a management consultant and human resources expert for About.com. "You want people disagreeing because that strengthens your company and your mission."
For example, employees may have strong feelings about the direction of the company or the next product line to introduce. Heathfield says that business owners should have some way to recognize and reward co-workers who take a stand and support it with concrete evidence, not simply personal feelings. Even if their recommendation is ultimately turned down, it encourages workers to take an active, constructive interest in the growth of the business. "The most important thing a business can do is to create a culture in which conflict is okay, where people feel comfortable debating ideas and directions and thoughts," Heathfield explains.
For conflicts between co-workers, managers should take a lighter touch. "It's not the manager's responsibility to referee or set themselves up as the all-powerful arbiter," Heathfield says. "They need to sit the two people down in a room as they talk out their individual differences and make sure things go okay. If you do it with that approach, you've made them more comfortable airing their different points of view to each other."
Talk away from the office
Sometimes conflict can flare up simply because co-workers aren't familiar with each other, even though they work side-by-side.
"A lot of people have their defenses up at work. They don't know the other person and they don't know what's going on in their life," says Andy Teach, a California-based career advancement expert and author of From Graduation to Corporation. "If you just sit down with them and try to talk to them, you might be surprised at how things can work out."
While direct communication is key to resolving conflicts, picking when and where to talk is also critical. If, after two or three emails, antagonism is only rising, it's time to pick up the phone or knock on their office door. Still, it's never a good idea to talk when you're upset, even if that means waiting a day or two to calm down before addressing the issue. Instead of talking to the person you disagree with at work, inviting them out for coffee or lunch—somewhere offsite where the stresses of the workplace are absent—can facilitate a more personal and productive conversation.
But wherever you meet, exercising some self-discipline and focus is paramount. "You don't want to start accusing them or raising your voice. You want to have a conversation," Teach says. "You can say: 'Look—you're treating me in this inappropriate way. Do you agree with my assessment? Can you tell me why? Is there anything I can do to make the situation better since we have to work together?
To settle a conflict with a fellow employee, a co-worker can offer them an incentive, Teach says. For example, the reward for settling a dispute amicably on their own can mean that both of them will enjoy their jobs more, produce more, make the workplace more harmonious for everyone—and help the department garner praise from upper management.
Keep it impersonal
It's essential in conflict negotiations to keep emotions out of the discussion and to focus on the disputed action—not the person behind it. Still, if you are attacked in an objectionable way, you can take control of the situation and even gain an advantage by holding your fire.
"If somebody raised his voice at me, I might say: 'Are you aware of how loud you said what you just said?' It moves it from attacking the other person back to making them aware of what they just did," says David Stanislaw, founder of Michigan-based Stanislaw Consulting, and a trained psychotherapist. "The biggest problem that people make in addressing each other is that they think the other person knows what they did. The level of self-awareness generally is low in the workplace, particularly when it comes to emotionally-charged communications."
After defusing a verbal exchange, it's best to step back and ask questions that move the discussion in constructive ways. "The idea is to take on the responsibility of being the communicator and to not assume that you know how to use the correct combination of words that accurately conveys what you're thinking or feeling to somebody else," Stanislaw explains. One key question to ask could be: "I don't think I meant that in the way you're taking it. Can I clarify what I was trying to say?"
Stanislaw points out that most conflict is subtle—such as an offhanded joke or a rude attitude toward another person—and is often ignored or dismissed because many people don't want to address it. Laying out transparent rules for settling disputes that everyone follows—including the owners—can be the first step toward a healthier workplace.