Dealing with conflict at workplace

Do you have a difficult colleague?

Do you consider them difficult because they don’t always agree with you?

Conflicts/disagreements are an inevitable and normal part of relating to one another. However, people get equated to being difficult, rude, or hostile when they disagree, therefore, they either do not want to disagree or do not know how to do it. According to a recent article in HBR, conflict can take up to 40% of managers’ time. The remote and hybrid work environments have made it more difficult for managers to spot and resolve conflict. 

Conflict, however, is not always bad. When coworkers push each other with an open mind, they synthesize different perspectives and arrive at better processes and solutions. Teams evaluate the pros and cons of various approaches to reach common goals and identify risks and mitigation strategies while dealing with conflict. In the process, they learn and grow, understand each other better, and bond. Research shows that when employees feel free to express their points of view, they are more satisfied and engaged with their jobs. 

On the other hand, unresolved conflicts affect individual performance, causing absenteeism, errors, rework, and missed deadlines. They also result in, festering tensions that spread across entire departments, eroding morale and diminishing trust. So, it is vital that leaders create an environment of trust where diverse ideas are welcome and discussed openly, criticism is constructive, teams are future-focused, and the goal is problem-solving and better outcomes.

Given below are a few tips to establish a work culture where dissent is constructive and serves the common goal – 

  1. Set protocols around communication and communication channels– Clear communication is fundamental to success while working with colleagues across geographies and remote and hybrid work environments. Leaders set the example by active listening and transparent and respectful dialogue. Email, chats, etc., expedite communication but leave room for gaps in comprehension, confusion, and misunderstanding. Establishing protocols for the use of modes of communication can help address the problem. For example, email or slack messages are not a good tool for a topic that merits discussion. In such a case, a video call or an in-person meeting are more appropriate channels to facilitate clarity. 
  2. Create accountability – Make sure that roles are well-defined and that expectations regarding the work are laid out clearly for teams. When there is clarity regarding who will do what and when there is minimum scope for misunderstanding and conflict. It also avoids the blame game if/when things go wrong. So, let people know what success looks like in their roles and the expected behaviors in the workplace, e.g., respect, openness, and collaboration. Make the time to note when people do things right and acknowledge them for their actions. 
  3. Establish diverse teams – Set up teams with diverse backgrounds, experience, and expertise. Create awareness of these differences and help team members embrace them. Make room for the perspectives that come with these differences. Be intentional about avoiding groupthink and respecting differences. Make it normal to invite different perspectives and welcome dissent. Ensure that all employees feel they belong.
  4. Encourage employees to resolve conflicts themselves – Conflicts are inevitable when people are passionate about their work. Equip teams to handle it when it happens. Train them to engage, speak, listen, and respond constructively. Empower teams by giving them a process to address differences in a respectful way.

To summarize, conflict in the workplace is an inevitable and healthy expression of engagement and passion for work. It results in better outcomes by churning diverse ideas and perspectives. However, unresolved conflict can affect employee performance and cost a lot. Leaders need to establish an open, transparent culture that recognizes and values differences and encourages open, transparent dialogue to move towards the common goal. 

PS – This blog was first published on LinkedIn as a part of the Your Career Matters series

I would love to know the cultural elements in your organization that help resolve conflict constructively.