Some conflict in the work environment is inevitable.
Why is this? Well, simply put it is because everybody is different. A group of people will have different ages, sexes, previous experiences and cultural backgrounds.
On top of that, there’s always a mix of personalities from introvert to extrovert, calm to energetic or quiet to outspoken in any group. This almost inevitably leads to differences of opinion on work-related topics.
As a line manager, you want to make sure that all members of your team are on the same page and working together.
This means that when conflict arises you need to manage and control it.
This doesn’t mean suppress it as that will mean that differences aren’t aired and dealt with.
What you really want to try to do is air and deal with the differences so that everyone feels that their viewpoint has been heard. Inevitably this is easier said than done.
Is Conflict Always Obvious?
When you imagine conflict in the workplace, you probably immediately think of shouting matches.
This can be where things end up if they’re not managed but to begin with a lot of conflict between team members will start silently. See this great article for more details.
As a leader, if you are not careful, tensions can build right under your nose and you may not find out about it until it has fully escalated into a series of arguments. Or perhaps you may start to see it in diminishing work quality.
Some people are not confrontational, they don’t want to cause a scene. This doesn’t mean that they won’t have a conflict with another team member, just that it won’t be obvious to you if you aren’t paying attention.
On the other hand, you may encounter more obvious conflicts where certain team members always disagree with each other’s ideas and call each other out publically in meetings and / or use aggressive language in emails.
Recognising signs of conflict requires you to use listening and observational skills. If you spot an ongoing conflict you are then in a position to deal with it proactively before it gets out of hand.
Communicating well with your team is crucial for you to be able to see where individuals are struggling to meet in the middle with other team members, and assertively deal with the issues.
There are any number of possible reasons why team members can fall out but the three big ones are:
1. Personality Clashes
This is usually when people infer what another team member is thinking from their actions, rather from an actual interaction.
Inferring someone’s intentions from their actions generally leads to mistakes.
For example, if someone missed a deadline or turns up late for meetings, others may build a picture of someone who isn’t interested or doesn’t care about their work. That may be the case but there are lots of other possible reasons for this behaviour that are much less negative.
Perhaps they are over-scheduled or have issues at home that they are dealing with.
Conflict tends to arise when there is a promotion at stake.
Team members become so focused on getting the promotion and competing with each other that they will start demonstrating negative behaviours to others, often without even realising it.
This can often lead to open conflict very quickly. This type of conflict should be quickly and aggressively managed.
3. Teamwork Dependency
Often a project will require members to work closely with each when they haven’t needed to before.
If they have different working and communication styles then they will need to understand each other and learn how to work with each other.
Sometimes they don’t find a way to work together than they both find acceptable and conflict can ensue.
There are lots of other ways that conflicts can start. In many cases, the cause can quickly become irrelevant as the dispute takes on a life of its own and grows far beyond the initial issue or seed cause.
Important Tips for Dealing with Conflict
With the examples above or even deeper routed conflicts, the most important thing you can do is set expectations clearly and early on.
Regardless of whether you are new to the line management role and learning the ropes or have managed the team for some time, it is important to let the team know how you expect them to conduct themselves.
Most importantly, let your team know that you are there for support and are happy to discuss issues with them individually if they need it. This will encourage them to come with you in the event of a conflict or disagreement.
Promoting a positive working environment and open communication is the best way to reduce the chances of a conflict before it even arises.
Unfortunately, you will still need to deal with some instances of conflict. In these cases the golden rules are:
Be assertive. If you think that you need to deal with a conflict as it is problematic move fast. Dealing with a conflict early will save lots of time when compared to a conflict that is allowed to fester.
Also, the negative outbursts and atmosphere than a conflict will generate are detrimental to the rest of the team and will wear people down over time.
It is important to let team members cool off and take a step back from the situation.
Although you should raise the issue when you see it, you should expect to resolve it right away.
Pushing people into a resolution when they aren’t ready won’t lead to a genuine solution and so the conflict will only be suppressed not dealt with.
Can your team members be encouraged to resolve the conflict without mediation?
Depending on the type of conflict and the types of people involved the resolution might be achieved between them without outside input.
If this is possible it is the best outcome so it is important for you to decide as soon as you recognise the conflict whether you feel that it is one that the team members themselves might be able to resolve.
Obviously you need to be sure to keep an eye on the situation though and be ready to step in if it calls for it.
You can’t plan how to handle something properly if you don’t know the whole story.
Inevitably the different sides of the conflict will have quite different views on how things have got to where they’ve got to.
Once you’ve listened to both sides fully you’ll be in a good position to formulate a response. Try not to second guess the conversations and plan your response before you’ve heard both sides fully. Research has shown that it is better to have separate meetings with both sides individually.
An added benefit is that usually, just the act of fully talking out the issues with you will help reduce the conflict between the underlying team members.
Email is great for sending out information to groups of people quickly, but it isn’t the right way to deal with conflicts.
Words and meanings can be easily misconstrued over email and intentions communicated incorrectly.
When dealing with conflicts it is important to have face-to-face conversations. Even if that is inconvenient and time-consuming it will lead to a far better outcome and so the time and energy will be well spent.