5 things you need to know when managing conflict

September 17, 2015 Kim Schollick No Comments

No matter how good a manager you are (and, if you’re proactively seeking out ways to be a better leader, chances are you’re probably quite a good manager), the odds that you’ll manage to go your whole career without having to deal with an aggrieved employee lie somewhere between slim and none.

Workplaces are becoming ever more diverse and teams are often made up of people of different genders, backgrounds, ages, cultures and ability. While this diversity can be extremely beneficial (diverse workplaces can increase creativity, drive innovation and capture more of the market), it can also lead to more instances of workplace conflict.

How that conflict impacts your workplace depends heavily on how you manage it, and how you manage it heavily depends on the policies and procedures you have in place to deal with conflict and workplace grievances.

While it may be tempting to take a step back and let your staff manage their conflicts on their own, the evidence suggests that this is the wrong approach to take. A 2012 study found that staff who are experiencing conflict with colleagues are 70% less productive than normal. Not only that, the impact reaches beyond those immediately involved – those who bear witness to the conflict are 40% less productive.

So what can you do to deal with conflict and clashes in your own workplace?

Ideally, you should have a Conflict Management Policy in place, but if you don’t just yet, here are five crucial aspects of workplace conflict you need to consider first.

Understand discrimination

In order to manage conflict sufficiently, you need to have a solid understanding of discrimination in all of its incarnations. People can be discriminated against for a number of factors, including:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Marital status
  • Pregnancy
  • Political beliefs
  • Background

Depending on where you live, some or all of these will be legally protected, which makes you obligated to prevent these types of discrimination happening in the workplace.

If a team member approaches you to complain about being discriminated against in your workplace, take this complaint seriously, regardless of whether you’ve seen or heard anything to support it yourself. The potential ramifications – legal and otherwise – of ignoring such a complaint are myriad, and it’s in everyone’s interests to investigate this claim.

Know the extent of bullying and harassment

Bullying feels like one of those things that should have been left on the schoolyard, but unfortunately workplaces are rife with it.

A recent Canadian survey found that 2 in 5 workers have had an office bully in their lives at some time. The same survey found that 63% of HR managers believe that workplace bullying never takes place in their office. Those two statistics illustrate the key barrier to tackling bullying in the workplace – that HR managers seem to be unaware of the full extent of bullying in their own workplace.

The costs of workplace bullying are significant. Outside of the impact on a victim’s wellbeing and family life, an Australian Government inquiry into workplace bullying found that it costs Australian businesses $6b and $36b annually.

While bullying and harassment are issues so vast and complex I could (and probably will) write an entire article on that alone, it’s important for you to understand that it’s a significant contributor to workplace conflict.

Intent doesn’t really matter

“Oh come on, I was only joking!”

It’s the catchphrase of anyone who gets called out for making an inappropriate comment or remark – the implication being that since they were just joking, no one can really be offended.

The general consensus, when it comes to workplace conflict, is that it’s impact, not intent, that is important. A racially charged joke, for instance, is exactly as offensive as someone finds it, regardless of what the joke teller intended.

If a conflict arises within your workplace based around something deemed offensive by one party, you need to understand that, “I didn’t mean it” is not sufficient enough of a response to move forward.

Situations like this, where there’s a huge difference between intent and impact need to be handled carefully, to avoid further conflict and resentment. Depending on the personalities of the people you’re dealing with, and the basis of the conflict, there are a number of ways you can approach resolution in this situation.

Conflict can arise over anything

As a manager, there will be times when you’ll need to manage conflict over something you find, well, kind of ridiculous.

Take, for example, the infamous ‘ham sandwich’ debacle at a Sydney law firm in 2005. A query regarding missing sandwich ingredients from a communal fridge (and a misunderstanding of when to use the ‘Reply All’ button) led to a very public argument that ended up in both parties losing their jobs.

That’s right. Public humiliation and unemployment over a packet of ham, some cheese slices and two slices of bread.

Workplaces can be something of a pressure cooker, and if people are stressed, conflict can arise over things that seem inconsequential from the outside.

Keep that in mind when you’re managing conflict between your staff – just because the catalyst for the conflict seems absurd, that doesn’t mean the impact of the conflict is any less real.

Conflict isn’t always negative

At the start of this article, I talked about how diversity can lead to more frequent instances of conflict in the workplace. What I did mention then is that not all of this conflict needs to be negative.

Conflict generally falls into two categories – a clash of ideas, and a clash of personalities. When handled correctly, the former can be a catalyst for change and growth.

You can use conflicts of ideas as a jumping off point to start discussions and brainstorm solutions. That’s where diversity, and the variety of perspectives and experiences it offers, truly pays off.

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