How To Handle Conflict In The Workplace

Few people enjoy conflict, yet sometimes it’s unavoidable. Even between best friends, disagreements and silly arguments can turn to anger and resentment. With family, it is sometimes even worse. And then, of course, there are your work colleagues. People who you have no choice but to spend time with, for hours a day, several days a week.

In an ideal world, every workplace would be a model of professional efficiency, with people working effortlessly together to achieve a common goal. But, in reality, human nature can mean tempers and hurt feelings, suspicions and jealousy, prejudices and grudges. In a work environment, these things can quickly get out of hand if they aren’t handled properly, and the consequences of a conflict spinning out of control can hurt not only the business, but in some cases your own career and prospects.

By understanding how to manage difficult situations, you can keep them under control and stop things escalating. This applies equally whether you’re a manager or supervisor experiencing friction between members of your team, or if you are directly involved in the clash yourself.

Resolving conflict isn’t always easy as it requires all parties involved to want to work things out. Not everyone reacts to disputes in the same way, and a stand-up argument in the middle of the office is not the only sign that something is wrong. Some people become sullen and withdrawn, or may burst into tears with no apparent provocation. Others might seem outwardly normal and only release their frustrations when they are home in a secure environment. In most cases, however, the individual’s work will suffer. While it’s important not to jump to conclusions, if you spot any of these signs in a colleague – or in yourself – it’s possible that unresolved conflict is at play.

Although it’s not easy to do, it’s best to bring things out into the open and confront them directly. This helps to prevent resentment, and is surprisingly effective at getting each party to understand the other’s point of view. How you go about this depends on your role in the workplace. If you are a manager, speak to individual team members privately and informally. It’s important at this stage not to make hasty judgements or take sides. Listen to grievances (it may take a while to probe to the root of the problem) and aim to get a full picture, who is involved and whether there are any underlying issues. For example, an argument may have kicked off because someone was 20 minutes late back from lunch, but it’s useful to know whether this was a one-off or if his colleagues are resentful because he is always late coming back. Once you fully understand the issues and the perspectives of individuals involved, it is easier to decide what action to take.

If you are involved in the conflict, it can be difficult to know what to do. In its early stages, speak to the other person or people involved with the aim of sorting out your differences in a conciliatory, non-confrontational way so you don’t risk making things worse. If the conflict is more serious or long-standing, consider talking to your supervisor or line manager (or, if appropriate, a staff union representative). They will listen to your concerns, counsel you on next steps and, if necessary, act as a mediator to help resolve the matter.

Regardless of your role, the key to successful conflict resolution is to make a genuine effort to understand everyone’s point of view and, perhaps more importantly, to address behaviours rather than the person. There’s a big difference between saying “He is often late back from his lunch which means the rest of the team have to put in extra work,” and saying “He is lazy and doesn’t pull his weight.”

The final piece of advice can be a tough one to swallow, but may make all the difference: Accept that you could be at least partly to blame. For example, if you challenged the person the first time he was late back from lunch – rather than letting it go on for weeks while complaining behind his back – the problem may have been resolved much sooner.

As difficult as it is at times, taking a calm, rational and adult approach to dealing with your work colleagues – in good times and bad – can make your working environment a more pleasant place for all involved.

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