Ellen Warden, SPHR
WorkPlace Synergy, LLC
Atlanta, GA

“Although their approaches or styles might differ, people actually want similar things… they may argue because they are ambitious or competitive…but most of the time people want to be part of something, they want to solve the problem, and they want to be successful.”
– Yael Zofi (author, facilitator, coach, CEO of global human capital consulting firm)

Conflict arises from differences between people, but it’s these differences that often make teams most effective. When a group with varying viewpoints, experiences, skills, and opinions are tasked with a project or challenge, the combined effort can far surpass the results achieved by a more homogeneous team.

But when conflict goes beyond a healthy difference of opinion, it becomes destructive.  In the worst cases you may lose clients and good employees.  In all cases, you lose time…time that would be better spent on billable work and achieving goals rather than managing disagreements and smoothing ruffled feathers.  One survey found that, on average, every employee spends 2.1 hours each week – approximately one day a month – dealing with conflict in some way (being involved in a disagreement, managing a conflict between co-workers, etc.)

With an increasing number of employees working remotely, it is more difficult than ever to ensure that team members are working together productively. Despite tools that are meant to bring us together (email, Skype, instant messaging and even Facebook), issues can get blown out of proportion with virtual team members who may be thousands of miles apart.  One person is upset because she says she wasn’t told a key piece of information, while another whines about the work ethic of someone else. A third jumps in with a complaint about what he believes to be a snippy e-mail from a colleague.

Leadership and conflict go hand-in-hand.  Proactively addressing conflict in a healthy, productive fashion is a key leadership skill that can lead to change, innovation, and employee retention.  Model the right behaviors for your associates and subordinates.   Practice active listening – paraphrasing, clarifying, questioning. Clearly communicate responsibilities and expectations. Provide more informal one-on-one conversations with the people you manage.

While just about anything can create conflict, the root of most conflict is either born out of poor communication or the inability to control one’s emotions.

Strong emotions are both a cause and result of conflict.  Good knowledge of the personalities in your team will help you be alert to potential flashpoints and personality clashes.  It will also help guide you toward the most effective methods of resolution for each individual, based on their needs and styles.

When managed well, the conflicts which lead to positive results in teams are the ones in which people feel personally invested in their positions and the interaction.  Treat all team members as if they are equally important.  Be open – if people have issues, they need to be expressed immediately and not allowed to fester.  Identify and address underlying tensions before things go wrong – be sensitive to situations in which bantering becomes unhealthy bickering.

Conflict rarely resolves itself. In fact, it normally escalates if not addressed properly. Deal with conflict immediately – avoid the temptation to ignore it.  Act as mediator when conflict develops.

Here are a few guidelines on effectively dealing with conflict:

  • Encourage different points of view – insist on honest dialogue.  Let each person state his or her ideas. Don’t agree or disagree, but make sure the information is clearly stated.
  • Clarify the positions of workers in conflict –   What does each person believe? What do they value? What information are they using as a basis for these beliefs? What decision-making criteria and processes have they employed?
  • Stick to facts and issues, not personalities – don’t let conflict get personal
  • Focus on actionable solutions rather than what can’t be changed; don’t focus on individual personalities, but rather the steps that will be taken
  • Encourage ownership of the problem and solution rather than assigning blame
  • Demonstrate respect – if the situation escalates take a break and wait for emotions to subside
  • Firmly manage toxic individuals who create conflict

Conflict in the workplace is unavoidable.  By respecting differences between people, quickly resolving destructive conflict when it does happen, and working to prevent it, you will be able to maintain a healthy and creative team atmosphere.

Ellen Warden works with BV practices to recalibrate comp and incentive structures, identify retention solutions, coach leaders on employee relations flashpoints, and develop strategies to meet the challenges of Millennials and employees from every generation. For more information, go to WorkPlace Synergy.

Ellen Warden
Ellen Warden