Conflicts of opinion happen every day in almost every workplace. Sometimes that means disagreeing about how to do the work at hand, clashing personalities, or differing values between employees. Whatever the reason for the tension between coworkers, their leader must react appropriately to keep the team united, efficient, and happy in the workplace.
Uncomfortable situations: We all want to avoid them, but nothing good ever comes of it when we do. Sometimes a conflict becomes evident through a fight between employees, but the conflict could also be subtle. A study of 5,000 full-time employees across Europe and the Americas found that 89% had been involved in a conflict that escalated, and almost one-in-three said that the conflict took more than one day to resolve.1 Over the course of a career, of course, that number is perhaps inevitable. Squabbles come up between people who spend all day, every day working together. If employees seem to be trying to reduce the tension themselves, a supervisor might not need to intervene. But if only one party is trying to be respectful, or if neither is bothering, it’s best to step in and address the problem. The same study showed that 16% of conflicts went unresolved or even continued to escalate.2
Pick the Right Time
You shouldn’t hesitate to act, but that doesn’t mean you have to address the conflict the moment you realize it’s an issue, like in the middle of a meeting. The last thing you want is to make the situation worse by disciplining one of the team members in front of the others. Instead, pick a time to talk with each party in the conflict separately about their side of the story and feelings on the matter, and then consider bringing them together or enforcing some resolution (like changing the seating chart, or an office-wide meeting) based on what you learn.
Define Acceptable Behavior
People have a wide range of beliefs, but there should be no variety of opinion among your employees about what’s acceptable workplace conduct. It’s probably okay for some discussion of foundational beliefs like politics and religion to take place in the office, provided it stays civil, respectful, and professional in tone. Or, maybe you want to prohibit those conversations as a matter of office policy. The same clear expectations must exist around company standards like break and lunch times, distribution of work, and dress code. This way, you don’t have to make a judgement call every time two or more people are in conflict over an issue; instead, you can keep a level playing field, regardless of your or anyone else’s personal feelings.
Healing the Wounds
Still, even though you can’t let those feelings influence your decision, they still need to be addressed to some degree. About 76% of US workers surveyed admitted to avoiding a coworker because of a past conflict,3 while 18% of employees say they have seen someone leave an organization due to conflict, whether because they were fired or quit.4 To avoid such rifts getting personal, leaders must set clear standards for behavior in the office and hold everyone accountable to them.
Once the parties involved have agreed to disagree, they may still feel lingering frustration, disrespect, or contempt for each other that a leader can try to lessen in a number of ways. It’s important to reinforce that both (or all) employees involved in the conflict are part of the team because they bring something to the table and are worthy of respect. Team-building events involving the whole office can push the parties to see the best in each other.
Workplace conflicts are unavoidable, but they don’t have to have enduring consequences. It’s important that everyone on all sides of the disagreement have a chance to say their piece, and that the conflict is settled in accordance with clearly outlined company standards. Managers and leaders can ensure conflicts are truly laid to rest with follow-up conversations and team-building.