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No organization is immune to conflict. Workplace disputes can range from small disagreements to protracted disruptions. What sets an organization apart is how the situation is handled. Quickly and successfully de-escalating a conflict can prevent the potential loss of work time, expensive lawsuits, and/or having to terminate employees. Throughout this article, we explore some of the causes of workplace conflict and steps to reconciliation before conflicts become unmanageable

What creates workplace conflict?

Most conflicts come down to a single thing – difference. Differences in opinion, perception, assumption, personality, age, and work style are all potential catalysts for serious disagreements. The workplace is a breeding ground for these differences to collide, where people misinterpret intent and create discord. Unfortunately, conflict is inevitable. Accepting that reality and learning to address situations head on, rather than avoid them, is the best thing to do.

When to get involved in a situation?

Not all instances of conflict need to be handled by management. Many employees are and should be able to work out differences on their own. However, if an employee is threatening to quit or arguments get personal or increasingly disrespectful, it is time to step in. If conflicts have developed to a point where morale or success (whether employees’ or the organization’s) are adversely affected, swift attention is recommended.

8 steps to conflict resolution

Before you intervene, have you thought about how you might be able to solve the problem at hand? Conflicts are complicated and finding a solution that everyone can tolerate is not easy. Below we breakdown some important steps to help guide you as you seek resolution.

  • Acknowledge the situation.
    And acknowledge it quickly. Brushing an issue under the rug could lead to an outburst if an employee gets tired of holding back anger or frustration.
  • Set ground rules.
    You need to make sure that you can have a civil dialogue between all parties involved. Set rules that work for your situation. Perhaps you allow only one person to speak at a time, keep all conversations confidential, and agree not to attack the people involved in the disagreement. Creating rules ahead of time helps you mediate issues, and sets a tone of respect before you begin.
  • Express feelings.
    Allow people to share what they’ve been experiencing. It gives employees the chance to be heard, and the other parties involved the opportunity to offer empathy. However, make sure to curtail communication that gets personal or disrespectful.
  • Respect differences.
    Everyone has their differences, and that is not a bad thing. You can’t force people to change who they are or where they come from, but you can help set boundaries on how they interact with each other.
  • Define problem.
    Don’t be afraid to confront the tension head-on. There will be emotions, but do your best to cut through the emotions that muddle the real issue. Remember that the goal is not to assign blame or determine who was wrong or right – the goal is to figure out the problem and find a solution that satisfies everyone involved.
  • Find common areas of agreement.
    Establish common ground. It sounds cliché, but you have to find a place to start, and figuring out where each party is on the same page is crucial to working out a healthy and positive resolution.
  • Find solutions.
    Ideally, a solution should align with company policies; consult the employee handbook when necessary. Encourage employees to discuss ideas and positive options for problem resolution. Once you have reached a solution, make sure each party involved is in agreement and commits to the plans you’ve set.
  • Follow-up.
    Ensure the roles each party takes on are well-established, and that methods and means of communication are clear and open. If you set a timeline for certain actions to take place, make sure you monitor their progress.
solving workplace conflict

Be assertive, not aggressive or passive when communicating throughout this process. Be open and flexible.

Pro tip: document everything. Make sure you have records of disputes, small and large, should you need to protect your employees or business in the future.

Should I seek outside help from a mediator or attorney?

Any act of workplace violence, abuse, or a threat of physical violence (that happens at your worksite), or legal issues such as harassment, discrimination, or bullying should be handled by a third party. Other instances of engaging outside consulting may include when you are dealing with a severely toxic work environment or when extensive training or re-training needs to take place.

What happens if an employee gets really angry?

What do you do if an employee conflict is getting out of control? If you can, prevent it by using the steps above. Listen and remain calm; employees are human and they need to vent. They want to be heard, understood, and validated. However, if you feel your safety, or that of your employees, is compromised by another employee’s actions – do not hesitate to get help. Immediately contact local authorities to help you avoid any potentially dangerous situations.

What are the benefits of conflict resolution?

While conflict resolution may feel awkward or confrontational, there are real benefits from dealing with problems in a timely and professional manner. In the long run, successful conflict resolution can reduce stress, increase staff morale and performance, foster more open communication, and increase cooperation. Hopefully, confronting conflicts quickly and thoroughly will help you create a safe environment where your employees feel they can share their differences and feelings openly with colleagues and management, and hopefully prevent future serious disputes.

This information is not provided as legal advice, and should not be taken as such. If you are experiencing workplace conflict, seek outside counseling or legal guidance.