How to manage conflict in your business

Have you ever sat back to think about what impact workplace conflict has on your business? Here’s a breakdown of the most common causes of tension, preventative measures, and ways to cope should things get fiery.

Studies have shown that conflict amongst colleagues results in:

1. Loss of productivity

2. Reduced quality of work

3. Increased absenteeism (resulting in the increased costs of paid leave)

4. Lack of motivation and engagement

5. Increase in staff turnover (increase in on-boarding costs)

6. Resources being wasted on resolving conflict

7. Legal fees – defending claims

What causes discontent in a workplace?

Workplaces experiencing conflict and discontent generally have a few common denominators. Some of these include:

1. Bullying or harassment

2. The spreading of rumours, gossip or inside jokes

3. Singling out employees, e.g. unfair rostering

4. Withholding information from people

5. Hidden agendas and lack of transparency

How to prevent conflict

Set expectations

One of the main ways to reduce conflict in the workplace is to set clear expectations. It is critical to manage your staff and set expectations for them, from senior managers down to the most junior person in the team.

Employees, whether at the top or the bottom of the hierarchy, should not allowed to opt out of complying with behavioural expectations and standards; these need to be applied to every member of staff, regardless of seniority.

Have you thought about implementing a thorough employee handbook, comprising all relevant workplace policies applying to your employees? These could include a code of conduct and a bullying and harassment policy, which clearly identify what behaviour is and isn’t tolerated.

Provide training

Regular refresher training sessions reinforce to your employees what is expected of them, and what consequences follow poor behaviour.

Tips and tricks for resolving conflict

Effective communication

When you are faced with a scenario involving conflict between your employees, the key to resolving it is definitely clear communication.

When first raising the issue with team members, a face-to-face conversation needs to be your priority. If you are relying on evidence of certain behaviour, you need to have key examples – do you have documentary evidence, emails between colleagues or a witness statement?

You need to ensure that you are listening as well as speaking: have you given your employee a chance to explain how the situation made them feel?

Try and differentiate between what is fact, and what is possibly fiction.

Before having the conversation with an employee, ask yourself:

1. What do I know (the facts)?

2. What do I want to know?

3. What do I want to happen (managing expectations or standards)?

4. What will the successful outcome look like?

5. What risks do I need to factor in and how can I manage them?

Managing a complaint

Sometimes when you receive a complaint, sorting out the conflict can fall to the bottom of your priority list. So if you receive a complaint, how should you respond to follow a best practice model?

1. You need to respond promptly.

2. Treat all matters seriously. While something might seem quite minor or comical to you, it may be at the forefront of someone else’s mind.

3. Maintain confidentiality. Only the people who need to know about what has happened and management’s response should be kept informed.

4. Ensure procedural fairness. Each person needs to know that their version of events is being given a fair hearing.

5. Be neutral. It’s important not to take sides. Don’t apportion blame.

6. Support all parties – both parties need to know that they have support, e.g. do you provide an employee assistance program? Interviewees should be invited to bring a support person to attend interviews.

Crucial conversations

Conversations dealing with conflict in the workplace are a type of what we call ‘crucial conversations’. Why are they crucial? Stakes are high, emotions are strong and opinions vary.

When having the crucial conversation, you need to ensure a ‘safe zone’. A safe zone comprises two things:

1. Mutual purpose: where both parties believe they are working towards a common goal in the conversation, and that both parties care about the goals, interests and values.

2. Mutual respect: where both parties respect each other. When mutual respect exists, we tend to actively listen to each other and acknowledge feelings, perspectives and differences without judgement.

Employees are often encouraged to sort out their differences themselves, without involving management. But have you equipped your employees with the right communication tools to take part in a crucial conversation?

People come from different backgrounds, with different values and different ideas of what is right and wrong.

To ensure employees are responding effectively, a simple three-step process should be followed:

1. Stop – is it appropriate to react/respond immediately?

2. Look and listen – am I in fight or flight mode? Do I have to approach this situation alone?

3. Proceed – Should I remove myself from the situation? Should I provide immediate feedback? Do I need to ask for help?

Half the battle in managing conflict in the workplace is equipping your employees with the right tools to respond to and manage it.

Derek Mamo is the national relationship manager at HR Assured, which provides HR solutions for businesses, such as auditing, a cloud-based platform, a phone advisory service, insurance and representation.

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