Managing workplace conflict
This article was originally written and published by Speak First
Psychologist Bruce Tuckman identified four stages of group development: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.1
Forming occurs when a group of people first meet and try to impress the others, while finding their place in the group dynamic. The second stage, Storming, is where conflicts happen, personalities clash, dominant voices are challenged and the stress of the task at hand kicks in. Eventually the group solves their issues and are a closer and more committed team for it, which is called Norming. Finally, Performing is when the group truly runs smoothly and is an efficient and functional team.
This tried and tested model doesn’t shy away from the reality that some level of workplace conflict is often unavoidable and can also be beneficial. 85% of people in work experience some level of conflict, with US employees spending nearly three hours a week dealing with conflict. This equates to almost $360 billion a year of lost time.2 So, while you’re in the middle of the storming stage, those benefits can seem a very long way away.
In order to help both employees and their managers, we’re going to take a look at workplace conflict, some causes, some effects and some methods to avoid or stop it.
Stress causes conflicts…
The American Institute of Stress found that issues with other people was the second highest cause of workplace stress (behind workloads), and that high stress is often directly linked to workplace conflicts. 42% of those surveyed said that yelling and verbal abuse is common in their workplace, with 29% admitting they had yelled at co-workers because of their own stress, and a worrying 10% work in places where stress has led to physical violence.3
Obviously, not all conflict becomes as bad as actual physical violence, but it’s a worrying sign that it reaches those heights so often.
… Conflicts cause stress
A 2019 survey found that 84% of UK workers say that conflict in their workplace affects their overall mental health, with one third reporting that they had experienced some form of bullying or harassment in the past year. Furthermore, a quarter of workers have said their working conditions are intense and stressful, which makes them feel exhausted and miserable.4
The problems that arise from this are obvious and worrying: If stress causes conflicts and, in turn, conflicts cause stress, some workers appear to be stuck in a never-ending vicious cycle of stress-conflict-stress-conflict.
The only way to break the loop is to start changing the way we work. Organizations and managers should have better prevention and intervention processes in place, and employees should be trained in conflict resolution.
How to avoid conflicts
Between 60-80% of all workplace conflicts are caused by strained relationships between employees.5 Therefore, when employees are able to work together with less friction, their working relationships and overall productivity should increase.
The most important thing to realize is that different people have different personalities and behaviors, along with unique experiences, thoughts and feelings. No two people are the same, which means some people are going to get along and complement each other and some are going to clash. What someone sees as an offensive insult might have been said with the intention of simply being ‘a bit of a joke.’ What was acceptable in a previous job might not be acceptable in your new one.
Many conflicts can be avoided entirely by keeping these things in mind. If someone says something that upsets you, before retaliating ask if they realized what they said was offensive? Similarly, if a comment or joke you make doesn’t go down as well as you intended, a quick apology can help defuse the situation. This easy step can stop things from escalating into anything bigger.
We should all be more careful with our use of language. Researchers found that many everyday phrases have a wide variety of meanings and can be understood in multiple ways. For example, although most people understand that something which ‘always’ happens means it happens 100% of the time, saying it ‘usually’ happens makes some people think it’s a certainty while others will have doubts. Other vague terms include ‘likely’, ‘unlikely’ and ‘a possibility’, which have no fixed definition for how likely or realistic the situation actually is.6
You risk creating conflict when you say it’s ‘quite likely’ that you will complete something by the end of the day. You might be trying to give yourself some leeway in case you don’t manage to finish it, but the person making the request may instead hear your answer as being almost certain you’ll do it. This is particularly true in cases of emails where there’s no tone of voice or body language to indicate emotions, which often clarify our deeper meaning.
These types of misunderstandings can create a lot of conflict at work, especially if the person who misunderstood your intent is going to experience disappointment or increased stress if you don’t come through with the goods.
How to manage conflict
Despite all your best efforts, sometimes conflicts happen. Some of them are going to be based on different attitudes towards the work, but occasionally things get personal.
When handling any type of conflict, it’s important to keep the discussion on the relevant and important issues. Deteriorating into personal attacks and assigning blame only makes the situation worse. Also, consider your own contribution to the conflict. Did you say something that you now regret? Don’t be ashamed of admitting mistakes and apologizing for them, someone’s got to be the first to back down, and egos aren’t helping anyone.
In cases where neither side is willing to back down, and there seems to be no common ground, mediation can be a solution. In such a situation, a neutral party – whether it be a colleague, manager or someone completely external – helps facilitate the discussion to find a resolution everyone is happy with. Mediators need to be trusted by both sides, and both sides need to come to the table willingly for it to be effective.
A Mindful Approach
By taking a mindful approach to conflict resolution, we can become aware of ourselves and our emotions, in order to better manage ourselves in moments of heightened emotions. When it comes to a conflict where communication has severely broken down, the ‘Begin Anew’ process can help.
Start by reflecting on positives about the person you’re in conflict with, separating your feelings about the person from your feelings about the current situation. You should then speak to the other person to tell them some of the things you appreciate about them, such as ‘I appreciate that you’re passionate about getting the work right,’ or ‘I appreciate you bringing coffee for everyone in the morning.’
You should then tell them the things you regret about your actions in the situation. This doesn’t necessarily mean taking responsibility for the conflict, but if you snapped angrily or started getting other people involved, then this is your time to discuss it. This brings you out of your entrenched position to talk openly and honestly about what’s happened, leading to a discussion of the situation and each other’s points of view.
This approach won’t necessarily solve all the problems, but it will help to reopen communication between you.
How to move on from conflict
In the movie The Matrix Reloaded, the character of Seraph tells the hero, Neo, ‘You do not truly know someone until you fight them.’ We aren’t suggesting that everyone needs to learn kung fu, but it is true that getting into a conflict teaches us about ourselves and others.
To return to Tuckman’s four stages, the reason teams perform best once they’ve had some level of conflict is because it brings to light things like people’s priorities and how far they’re willing to go for them, what people will stand up for and what they’ll just accept. Once a team fully understands these things about each other, they can start being more effective, with a renewed and unified purpose.
Generally speaking, whether it’s a process issue or a personality clash, a conflict is a sign that something has gone wrong. By experiencing this conflict, the people involved are now aware of what doesn’t work between them and can either fix or circumvent this in the future.
Practical Tips For Managers:
1. Set a good example
The way managers behave sets the tone for how their employees behave, so managers need to lead from the front and set the right culture. By behaving the way they want others to behave – using appropriate language, listening to others etc. – can stop many conflicts before they begin. If a manager is rude and selfish, their team is more likely to pick up these traits, leading to more issues.
2. Hire staff based on personality and values as well as competencies
When you have an existing team, make sure that anyone new you add will work well with the people already there. Someone might be brilliant at the job, but if they aren’t able to work together with their colleagues, it can be worse than hiring someone less skilled but gets on better with others.
3. Learn when to step in and when to stand back
Sometimes it’s best to let conflicts play out between your team members, and sometimes a manager needs to step in. Conflict Management training programs will help you learn these skills, and to understand the best way to end, mediate and prevent conflicts between your employees.
4. Train your team to manage their own conflicts
As well as learning how a manager should deal with conflicts, giving your employees Conflict Management training means they can start solving more of their own issues. Some larger conflicts will still require a manager, but for many smaller squabbles, they should learn how to end it themselves.
5. Check in regularly with your team
Although it’s highly recommended that people talk to their managers if they’re having a problem at work, not everyone does. Some don’t want to be a ‘snitch’ and some feel like they should be able to deal with things themselves. This means managers often aren’t aware of conflicts between their teams, or at least not its full extent. Managers should keep an eye out for signs of increased stress, tension or changing dynamics in their teams, and regularly ask them individually how they’re feeling.
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1 Tuckman, B. (1965) Developmental sequence in small groups
2 CCP (2008) Workplace conflict and how businesses can harness it to thrive
3 The American Institute of Stress (2019) Workplace stress
4 CIPD (2019) UK working lives
5 Forbes (2014) Conflict resolution: When should leaders step in?
6 Harvard Business School (2018) If you say something is ‘likely’, how likely do people think it is?
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