Human Resources News & Insights

Help your managers turn workplace conflicts into productivity boosters

Great minds don’t always think alike. And occasional workplace conflicts — from differences over tasks and projects to more personal debates — are unavoidable. Guest poster Alastair Kane has some suggestions on how managers can act not just to defuse these situations, but use them as teaching and learning opportunities.

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A little constructive criticism is useful. Larger disagreements aren’t conducive to a healthy atmosphere or productive working environment.

Once swords are crossed, it can be difficult to get on with business smoothly. Here are some tips for managers.

Realize conflicts are inevitable and address them immediately

Workplace conflict will blossom regularly in any healthy workplace, but the first step to addressing it is to recognize its inevitability. Often a side-effect of worker enthusiasm, passion or excitement, having many personalities and alternative thought processes in a workplace means conflict is always a part of the professional process. And for the most part it’s a healthy by-product.

But that doesn’t mean managers can let it flourish. Like weeds flowering in a well-watered garden, disagreements must be identified and addressed before they spread and cause wider damage to the working environment.

Time causes conflicts to deepen, and long-term spats can cause lasting damage to progress, so supervisors must act quickly to keep their workplace productive.

Maintain perspective

Managers should take a deep breath, step back from the situation, then take another look at it. While differences may partly cause conflict, they can also help supervisors understand and resolve problems.

Listening and weighing all points of view in an objective way makes it easier to get to the root of the issue and reach answers peacefully. Good communication is the key to resolving any misunderstanding. So managers need to listen – without condescension or interruption.

If people need more space, less distraction, or if discussions between individuals get easily heated, move to a quiet room to work through issues in an as non-accusatory way as possible. Getting angry will only make the matter worse.

Defuse negative feelings and look for compromise

Once everyone involved in conflict can communicate well, the next step to resolution is almost always compromise — one perspective is unlikely to be 100% correct in most situations. But if individuals involved refuse to budge, barter or compromise in any way, conflicts stagnate, deepen, repeat and halt progress for longer than they should.

To reach common ground, everyone must be open to alternatives. But for employees to seriously consider and be satisfied by compromise, managers must positively communicate the benefits of a final decision. Any remaining negative feelings and emotions must also be addressed to prevent future problems: If bad feelings remain, they can grow into further conflict.

Preventive communication

Prevention of conflict is just as important as resolution itself, and this is why effective workplace communication is so crucial. The best form of conflict prevention — the efficient communication of ideas (and especially changes) — means misunderstandings can be easily avoided, anticipated and potentially resolved before they happen, lessening conflict and tension.

So as good communicators, effective leaders should be able to recognize common triggers of disagreement, and be ready to intervene and resolve conflicts when necessary, using their problem-solving skills to keep employee relationships on an even keel.

Conflict can be an opportunity for growth. Managers should seize it as an opportunity to develop a different perspective on everyday practices.

Alastair Kane is a writer for Communicaid, a culture and business communication skills consultancy based in the UK.

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