By Deanna deBara
Part of building a successful company is creating a peaceful, collaborative, and supportive work environment for your team.
But no matter how great your work environment (or your team members), at some point, conflict is inevitable.
You can’t avoid workplace conflict entirely. But it’s how you handle that conflict—both as a leader and as an organization—that matters. With the right conflict management strategies, you can leverage conflict as a springboard for positive change and an opportunity to better understand your employees.
But without those strategies, workplace conflict can quickly get out of hand, creating a toxic work environment—and causing some of your top talent to walk out the door.
So how, exactly, do you deal with conflict in the workplace? What conflict management strategies can you use to not only work through the conflict, but inspire a deeper sense of understanding and empathy within your team?
And how can you resolve conflict in a way that supports employee retention—and keeps top talent happy and committed to your organization?
Why conflict management matters
First things first—before we jump into effective conflict management, let’s quickly cover why managing workplace conflict is so important in the first place.
According to the 2008 report Workplace Conflict And How Businesses Can Harness It To Thrive from CPP Inc. (the publisher of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment), the average employee in the US spends 2.8 hours each week dealing with conflict, translating to a whopping $359 billion in paid hours at the time of the study—and today, that number is even higher.
Conflict can also cause other consequences for your business, including absenteeism (25 percent of employees surveyed in the CPP study reported that they stayed home from work in order to avoid conflict) and employee retention issues (18 percent of employees said they witnessed people leaving their organization as a result of workplace conflict, while another 16 percent said conflict led to colleagues being fired).
And even if conflict doesn’t keep your employees at home (or send them to another organization), it could keep them siloed from the rest of their team; 76 percent of employees have gone out of their way to avoid a colleague because of a disagreement at work.
Clearly, workplace conflict can have a seriously negative impact on your business.
But the good news? All of these issues can be solved with the right conflict management strategy—and, in fact, those strategies can actually transform conflict within your organization into a growth opportunity that empowers your team members.
About 81 percent of employees said that they had seen workplace conflict lead to a positive outcome, like getting a better understanding of their coworkers or finding a more effective solution to a problem.
So, the question is, how can you manage workplace conflict in a way that empowers your team, inspires growth, and keeps top talent at your organization?
Workplace conflict management strategies to resolve conflict and keep the peace at work
Whether you’re a business owner, C-level leadership, or work in human resource management, there are a few different strategies you can use to effectively manage conflict in the workplace, keep your team members happy, and support employee retention, including:
Start by hiring the right people
Effective conflict resolution starts long before the conflict actually happens. In fact, if you want your organization to embrace positive, healthy conflict resolution, it needs to start with the hiring process.
Who you hire will play a huge role in how conflict plays out in your organization. If you hire people who are empathetic, collaborative, and have good communication skills, when conflict inevitably arises, they’re already the kind of people who are likely to navigate conflict in a positive, constructive way.
On the other hand, if you hire people with poor communication skills and a self-centered attitude, they’re more likely to be reactive when faced with conflict—and that reactivity can have a negative impact on the rest of your team.
If you want to build a company culture that embraces healthy conflict resolution, it all starts with who you hire.
So, as you’re building your team, make sure you’re evaluating each potential team member for things like communication skills, listening skills, and their ability to see things from other people’s point of view—all essential characteristics for effectively resolving conflict.
Deal with things as they happen
As mentioned, some amount of conflict is inevitable in the workplace. But where things can really start to spiral out of control is when minor conflicts aren’t addressed—and all of a sudden, those minor conflicts snowball into major conflicts.
According to the CPP survey, 89 percent of employees have experienced a workplace conflict that escalated.
Approximately one in three employees said that a recent workplace conflict took at least a few days to resolve—and 16 percent reported that they’re still dealing with a conflict that’s unresolved, lasted longer than expected, and/or is increasing in intensity.
That’s why it’s so important to manage conflict as it happens. The longer you wait to address conflict—whether that’s between employees or between employees and leadership—the more likely it is that the conflict will escalate, become a much bigger deal, and potentially cause an employee to leave.
So, how do you deal with conflict in real-time? Pay attention. While you can’t monitor every employee around the clock to catch any potential squabbles, you can keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on across your organization—and when you hear about or notice any conflict, big or small, address the problem immediately and work with the people involved to come to a resolution.
Addressing conflict as it happens is good—but addressing underlying conditions that could lead to conflict in the future is even better (54% of employees surveyed believe managers could handle disputes better by addressing underlying tensions before conflict erupts).
Again, observe your team and keep an eye out for any issues that could lead to conflict down the road.
For example, do you have a more introverted team member who is working on a project with an employee known for being outspoken and hot-headed?
If so, you might want to schedule time throughout the day for each person to work independently so your quieter employee doesn’t feel overwhelmed.
Or does your current office layout make it hard for your team to contain their phone conversations?
Set up a quiet area where people can go to work if the phone chatter is too distracting.
The point is, a lot of workplace conflict can be avoided with a little foresight—and if it can’t, it can at least be addressed in a timely manner before it escalates into something larger and more problematic.
Empower your team with employee conflict resolution training
Effective workplace conflict resolution is a team effort. But if you want your team to be more effective at resolving conflict (which will, in turn, make your entire organization more effective), you need to show them how to be more effective.
But the truth is, not many companies are empowering their team to be more effective at navigating and resolving conflict; according to the CPP survey, only 57 percent of employees surveyed received training on how to manage workplace conflict.
Investing in conflict resolution training for your team is a win-win situation.
It empowers your team with the tools and skills they need to better work through issues with their colleagues, helps them to look at conflict as a growth opportunity (instead of a problem), and makes for an overall more respectful and collaborative company culture—which can help you retain top talent.
Research the different training options available, see which is the best fit for your team, and then make a plan to roll out the training to your entire organization.
The more you empower your team with conflict resolution tools and strategies, the better they’ll be able to manage conflict—and the less likely it will be that conflict leads to serious issues (like absenteeism or employee departures).
Mediate the conflict
No matter how effective your team is in resolving conflict, there are going to be instances when leadership or HR needs to step in and act as a mediator—and when you’re faced with that situation, it’s important that you mediate in a way that resolves the conflict for everyone involved.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when mediating a conflict between team members:
- Hear all sides of the story. Everyone deserves an opportunity to be heard—so when you’re meditating a conflict between team members, make sure everyone has the opportunity to share their side of the story.
- Encourage employees’ to see the other’s point of view. It’s much easier to resolve a conflict when you can see the conflict from the other person’s perspective. If you can, encourage your employees to empathize and try to see the conflict from the other person’s point of view.
- Redirect personal attacks. Personal attacks are never constructive. If you notice an employee personally attacking another team member’s character, redirect the conversation back to the problem—and away from the person involved with the problem.
- Define where the problem came from—and how to resolve it in the future. The goal of workplace conflict resolution is (obviously) to resolve the conflict. But it’s also to prevent the same conflict from popping up in the future. Work with your employees to figure out the root cause of the issue and how you can work together to prevent a similar conflict from happening in the future.
- Ask how you can support them. Conflict is hard for a lot of people—and dealing with workplace conflict can make your employees feel stressed and overwhelmed. Make sure to let your team know you’re there to support them in resolving the conflict—and then ask them what they need in order to feel supported.
Be the example
Employees look to leadership for cues on how to act in the workplace—and that includes how to resolve conflict.
As a leader, it’s your job to model how you want your team to navigate workplace conflict resolution—so make sure when you’re faced with conflict, you’re being the example and resolving that conflict in a way that you’d want your employees to replicate.
Keep the peace at work—and keep your employees in the process
Fostering effective conflict resolution is a must for keeping the peace at work—and keeping the peace at work is a must for keeping top talent at your organization.
And now that you know exactly how to deal with employee turnover by handling conflict, you have the tools you need to create peace and harmony within your team—and improve employee retention in the process.
Deanna deBara is a freelance writer living in Portland, OR. When she’s not busy building her business or typing away at her keyboard, she enjoys spending time hiking in the Pacific Northwest.
(This article was originally posted on Hourly.io, a Silicon Valley company that offers a tech platform to manage, pay, and insure the hourly workforce. Published as part of a content partnership.)