The individuals that make up a team at a workplace are often a blend of people from different backgrounds and life experiences. There may be a wide range of ages and people that have conflicting personalities and workstyles. This makes it very likely that differences of opinion and disputes will erupt sooner or later. There are many possible causes of conflict from differing workstyles to power struggles to personality clashes. What’s the best way to handle conflict at work when it happens?

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Constructive Versus Destructive Conflict

Conflict is sometimes constructive and isn’t always a bad thing. When team members express differences of opinion, it can stimulate discussions that lead to innovative ideas, as long as everyone’s input is heard and respected. When team members treat each other respectfully, they all feel safe expressing their thoughts and ideas. But when people are being hostile, sarcastic or aren’t listening to each other, conflict is no longer constructive.

Don’t Wait Too Long to Get Involved

When conflict is destructive, there’s a feeling of tension and animosity in the air. Coworkers may be openly arguing, getting loud or emotional or they may not be communicating at all. As conflicts intensify and communication breaks down, the workplace becomes uncomfortable for everyone. Productivity decreases and absenteeism increases. Some team members may begin looking for employment opportunities elsewhere.

When it’s clear conflict has become destructive and is getting worse instead of better, it’s important to look for the best way to handle conflict sooner rather than later. The longer you wait to confront destructive conflict, the more likely it is to have an effect on employee morale, productivity and job satisfaction. Any sign of bullying or discrimination needs to be addressed immediately.

Working Toward a Solution

To defuse conflict, everyone needs to take a step back. It may be helpful to meet with a mediator, either within your organization or from an outside organization that specializes in conflict resolution. With a third party present, everyone involved needs to have an opportunity to express themselves without interruption or emotional outbursts. Active listening means communicating interest in what each person is saying. Listen attentively, ask questions if necessary and repeat back to them what they have shared. This lets each person knows their input is valued and that they have been heard.

Working toward a solution means staying focused until one is found rather than dwelling on the problem or who is to blame. Everyone involved needs to stay calm and in control of their emotions while looking for common ground and brainstorming possible compromises. Decide on the best solution and clarify the responsibilities of each of them in implementing an action plan. Be sure to follow up to make sure the solution is working and make changes to your plan if needed.

Can Future Conflicts Be Prevented?

The best way to handle conflict is often to learn from each experience and to take steps toward preventing it in the future. Clearly defining roles and responsibilities is a good way to avoid confusion on who is responsible for what. Encourage frequent communication between team members to help build trust. Team building exercises can help staff members get to know each other better especially when approached with a relaxed and upbeat mood.

Regular training on topics like diversity, unconscious bias and harassment is another good way to help prevent conflict and divisiveness.  People at all levels may benefit from conflict resolution training and leaders improve their skills in this area with conflict coaching.

Reach out to Pollack Peacebuilding Services to find out more about training, coaching and conflict resolution services.

Valerie Dansereau

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