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How to Deal with Conflict in the Workplace

Originally published
Originally published: 8/1/2014

Things appear to be fine in your organization. There is a sense of calm flowing and employees are interacting in a respectful way and are working well as a team.

Then your company lands a huge new contract. Everyone is working overtime. Voices are rising and fingers are pointing. The majority of your day is spent playing referee. You walk outside to see if there is a full moon in sight. When you return, there is another employee in your office waiting to complain about a co-worker.

Conflict in the workplace is inevitable. When you throw a group of people together, differences are bound to surface. But, the news is not all bad. Some conflict in the organization can be beneficial. Differences of opinion encourage creativity, change and progress. If addressed early, conflict can also provide insight into larger issues that may be brewing.

Sources of conflict

When situations get out of control, they can be difficult to address. Familiarizing yourself with the following common sources of conflict will help you to diffuse situations before they occur:

Lack of clarity — Employees wind up in turf wars when boundaries aren’t clearly defined. A well-written job description, along with clearly defined reporting relationships can help prevent this situation.

Limited resources — In today’s environment where people are asked to do more with less, there is often conflict over time, money, supplies and even space. When you observe conflict in the workplace, determine if employees have adequate resources to do their work. Whenever possible, include employees in the resource allocation process. This will provide them with a better understanding of how allocation decisions are made in your organization.

Conflicts of interest — Individuals fighting for personal goals and losing sight of organizational goals can create quite a ripple in the organization. Continually remind employees how their personal goals and efforts fit with the organization’s strategic business goals.

Power struggles — The need to control is at the root of many workplace conflicts. Who should have that information? Who should be involved on that project? Who has the corner office? Recognize that power struggles exist. Teach employees how to manage relationships in the organization so they can effectively navigate through political mine fields.

Tips for dealing with conflict

A strong leader gives employees the tools needed to resolve conflict situations on their own, rather than continuously playing the role of referee. Here are some suggestions to help you transition from referee to coach:

  • Encourage employees to work things out on their own. Provide them with guidance.
  • Ask employees what they’ve done to work out a situation.
  • Look for core causes.
  • Help the individual focus on specific behaviors, not personality.
  • Redirect the person making the complaint back to the individual he or she is having the conflict with and offer suggestions on how to approach this person.
  • Request this person give you feedback on how things went. Offer additional feedback, if appropriate.

Since disagreement is inevitable, it makes good business sense to train employees and management on how to effectively deal with conflict in the workplace. Your investment will reap immediate dividends. Employees will spend less time focusing on one another and more time focusing on your customers. Listen closely. Calm has returned to your organization.

For more than 25 years, Roberta Matuson, president of Matuson Consulting, has helped leaders of fortune 500 companies and small- to medium-sized businesses create exceptional workplaces. A seasoned consultant, Matuson is considered a leading authority on leadership and the skills and strategies required to earn employee commitment and client loyalty. She is the author of Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around, and is a prolific writer who has published more than 300 articles worldwide.

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