Management of Workplace Conflicts

Management of Workplace Conflicts

The differences of the employees of an organization define their uniqueness. These differences can be due to their backgrounds, culture, gender, beliefs, values, and behaviours. Different employees may have differences with their co-employees in the peer groups. They may have different abilities, talents, and levels of attractiveness or interest. These differences though help in the progress and contribute to the dynamics of the organization yet they also contribute to workplace conflicts in the organization. Each of the employees of the organization is likely to experience some degree of conflict, be it personal, professional, or organizational.

Employees of the organization are human beings and the very essence of being human contributes directly to the varying degrees of unhappiness, distress and destruction. Every employee has his own unique background and his own needs defined by his values and beliefs. When these needs are not met, or are denied, then the employee is in the state of conflict.

All the employees of the organization are different from each other. They have different needs, tastes, opinions, beliefs, preferences and values. There is a need to cope with these differences. The differences are not to be allowed to get in the way and be the source of workplace conflict. On the contrary the differences are to be exploited for the employees’ creativities.

Workplace conflicts are of four types (Fig 1). They are (i) conflicts over facts and data, (ii) conflicts over process or methods, (iii) conflicts over purpose, and (iv) conflicts over values. Further, the workplace conflicts can be simple or complex. These are always the underlying causes for various conflicts at the workplace.

  • Conflicts over facts and data – The two sides involved in the conflict have two sets of facts or two different interpretations of the facts. This level represents a basic misunderstanding, yet it is one which is often overlooked. For the sake of avoiding conflicts, it is always better for the employees to double check whether there is agreement on such things as statistics and definition of key terms.
  • Conflicts over process or methods – Many workplace conflicts are about how the work is to be performed. Both sides have same goal in mind, yet they prefer different approach for getting there. If the conflicting employees really listen to each other, they find merit in both methods and they find ways to blend both the ideas creatively.
  • Conflict over purpose – This is a difficult workplace conflict which needs open and honest discussion. Both sides learn through the discussions even though they do not know the purpose of the particular project. They may be able to compromise or chose one purpose over the other. Both the conflicting sides are to agree on a mutual purpose so that they can make definite plans to go ahead on the project.
  • Conflict over values – A conflict over principles of life is the most emotional of all conflicts. While an employee can have respect for another employee who has different values, he will not change his own values. In this type of conflict there is no flexibility available. Hence resolving of such conflicts is the most difficult.

Types of workplace conflicts

Fig 1 Types of workplace conflicts

Workplace conflict is an inevitable part of the work environment.  A study has found that an overwhelming majority of employees (around 85 %) at all the levels experience conflict to some degree. While workplace conflict is a normal part of any organizational setting, the challenge of conflict lies in how one chooses to deal with it. Concealed, avoided or otherwise ignored, workplace conflicts are likely to aggravate only. They grow into resentment, create withdrawal or cause factional infighting within the organization. If the workplace conflicts are left unresolved, they can disrupt the organizational peace, productivity, sap morale, and even cause some good employees to quit.

Workplace conflicts are inevitable. They happen whenever there are employees in the organization with different expectations. They happen when personalities clash, when team members perceive interference from one another, when employees feel unable to progress due to the actions of other employees.

A workplace conflict involves an ongoing situation, unlike a dispute, which is a one-off incident. If a dispute goes unresolved, it can cause a conflict situation. This state of affairs, if left unresolved, can escalate quickly and create a potentially dangerous workplace situation. This makes conflict management critical, whether avoiding arguments, disputes, lasting conflict or ultimately, litigation.

Initially a dispute between one or more employees, without resolution, may cause an uncomfortable working environment, characterized by gossip and rumour, an awkward atmosphere and non-cooperation between team members. This in turn can lead to further dispute in the form of arguments and complaints. At this point others may become involved and take sides. Incidents escalate and tension rises. This is now a conflict situation. The passing of blame becomes a formal complaint and the employees are increasingly non-productive as all their energy is directed towards the conflict.

Without management intervention the conflict can readily approach crisis point. There may be strong clashes, highly emotional outbursts, shock resignations, verbal abuse, even threats of physical violence. At this point, the only option is to ponder how the situation has been allowed to get out of hand.

Workplace conflicts can be avoided if steps are taken early in a discussion to diffuse anger and facilitate communication. They can be resolved by applying a series of thoughtfully applied steps.

For the sound conflict management, there are principles of three Rs. These three Rs are (i) responsibility, (ii), relationship, and (iii) real problem. Responsibility makes the employees in conflict as part of the solution. Relationships help in getting the conflict resolved. It helps to get the job done. When people want the employee to succeed then they cooperate and give special considerations during crisis situations. Also people in conflict often shift their attention to secondary conflicts which have nothing to do with the real problem. Diversion of issues from real problem is the biggest impediment in resolving a workplace conflict.

Workplace conflicts take place when there are opposing positions, competitive tensions, power struggles, ego, pride, jealousy, performance discrepancies, and compensation issues etc. While it appears that anything and everything can create workplace conflict, the reality is that the root of most conflicts is either born out of poor communication or the inability to control one’s emotions. These two major causes of workplace conflicts are described below.

  • Communication – If the employees reflect back upon the workplace conflicts which they have encountered over the years, they would realize that many of them have resulted from a lack of information, poor information, no information, or misinformation. Communication problem can arise even if the employees receive good and timely information but do not know what to do with it. Communication problems can lead to workplace conflict. Clear, concise, accurate, and timely communication of information help to ease both the number and severity of conflicts.
  • Emotions – Another common mistake made in workplace communications which leads to conflict is letting emotions drive decisions. There are cases when otherwise shrewd and knowledgeable executives place the need for emotional superiority ahead of achieving their mission. Mixing of emotions with other issues need to be avoided for the resolution of the conflicts.

Workplace conflicts can be avoided if early steps are taken to diffuse anger and to facilitate effective communication. They can be resolved by applying a series of thoughtfully applied steps. The following are some of the tools normally used for avoiding and resolving workplace conflicts in the early stages.

  • Staying calm – It is often said that nothing gives one so much advantage over another as to remain always cool, calm, and unruffled under all circumstances. The thing that leads to conflict is the escalation which the employees normally resort to in their anger. Employees stop listening to understand as they get angry. Instead, they should start listening and not argue back. Remaining calm is essential for the avoidance of workplace conflicts. Remaining calm helps in looking at the big picture. Employees can avoid later embarrassment by checking in with their own personal boiling point before responding. This helps in resolving conflicts at the workplace.
  • Listening to understand – The first step in resolving conflict is to attend to the other person and validate his opinion, feeling or intention. To validate does not mean to agree. Usually in a situation when the workplace conflict is in the stage of development, the listening is only being done to formulate an argument back to prove the point. When an employee gets into a dispute, the first thing he does is stop listening. The only way to settle a dispute or solve any kind of a problem is to listen carefully to what the other employee is saying. Perhaps he has his own reason and that reason may be actually true. Listening to other employee’s viewpoint avoids many of the workplace conflicts.
  • Controlling the anger – Psychologists tell us that anger is a secondary emotion and that it is usually triggered as a defense mechanism to cover up hurt feeling or fear. When someone is angry, there is usually some hurt or fear that he is embarrassed about, or perhaps even unaware of because the anger is so all consuming. In order to diffuse the anger, the parties involved in the workplace conflict must listen. It is better to hear the other side’s view. Let the other side tell until it has run out of gas. Let it vent as long as it can until it begin to calm down. Active listening to the views of other side by controlling anger is a sure shot method in resolving the workplace conflicts.
  • Speaking with control on words – Words enable one to build bridges or create barriers. They have the power to heal or wound. They unite or divide. They create conflict or harmony. Hence in case of workplace conflict s, employees must keep control on what they speak.

Majority of employees (85 %) of an organization is to deal with conflict to some degree while a substantial percentage of employees do so ‘always’ or ‘frequently’. They also spend a significant amount of time in managing the conflicts.  The level at which most workplace conflicts are observed is normally between the entry-level/front-line employees, but conflict also exists at the most senior levels.

The primary causes of workplace conflict are seen as personality clashes and warring egos, stress, and heavy workloads. Culture also plays a part in the perception of causes as some employees see a clash of values as a major cause of conflict while others see as a lack of honesty as the key factor.

Developing effective conflict resolution skill in the employees is an essential component for building of a sustainable and successful organization. Unresolved conflicts often result in loss of productivity, the stifling of creativity, the creation of barriers to cooperation and collaboration. Perhaps most importantly for the management, good conflict resolution ability equals good employee retention. Organizational management which does not deal with conflict eventually watches their good talent walk out the door in search of a healthier and safer work environment.

Management is to implement procedures in the organization to effectively deal with the workplace conflicts whenever they arise. This is essential for organizational health and performance. Workplace conflicts are to be accepted and addressed through effective conflict resolution processes. While having a conflict resolution structure is important, effective utilization of conflict resolution processes is ultimately dependent upon the ability of all the parties to understand the benefits of conflict resolution, and perhaps more importantly, their desire to resolve the matter. The following are a few points which help in handling workplace conflicts in a more effective way.

  • Define employees’ acceptable behaviour – The organization is to define the acceptable behaviour for its employees. Defining of the employees’ behaviour is a positive step in avoiding workplace conflicts. Creating a framework for decision making, using a published delegation of power, encouraging sound and healthy work practices, team building, leadership development, and talent management etc. help in avoiding workplace conflicts. Having clearly defined job descriptions so that people know what is expected of them, and a well-articulated chain of command to allow for effective communication also helps in avoiding the workplace conflicts. Employees are to clearly know what is acceptable and what is not tolerated with respect to their behaviour in day to day dealings.
  • Do not avoid the conflict – The workplace conflicts are not to be avoided in the hope that they will go away.This normally does not happen. Even if the conflict appears to have been superficially put to rest, it will rear its ugly head whenever stress increases or a new disagreement occurs. An unresolved conflict or interpersonal disagreement aggravates just under the surface and it splashes to the surface whenever enabled, and always at the worst possible moment. Management is to face the conflict head-on in order to prevent conflicts. The organization need to have conflict resolution procedures for conflict prevention. By actually seeking out areas of potential conflict and proactively intervening in a just and decisive fashion, management is likely to prevent certain conflicts from ever arising. If a conflict does flair up, conflict resolution procedure is likely to minimize its severity by dealing with it quickly. Time spent identifying and understanding natural tensions help to avoid unnecessary conflict.
  • Understanding the viewpoint of other employee in conflict – Understanding the other employee’s position involved in conflict is critical. It is absolutely essential to understand other’s motivations prior to weighing in. The way to avoid conflict is to accommodate his viewpoints since they may be of relevance.
  • The importance factor – Workplace conflicts for the sake of conflicts are to be avoided. However if the issue is important enough to create a conflict then it is surely important enough to resolve. If the issue, circumstance, or situation is important enough, and there is enough at stake, the employees under conflict must do what is necessary to open lines of communication and close positional and/or philosophical gaps.
  • View conflict as opportunity – Hidden within virtually every conflict is the potential for a tremendous teaching/learning opportunity. Where there is disagreement there is an inherent potential for growth and development. Management is required to leverage workplace conflict for team building and leadership development purposes. Workplace conflicts sometimes offer great opportunity for this. Divergent positions addressed properly can stimulate innovation and learning in ways like minds can’t even imagine. Smart managements look for the upside in all differing opinions.

The poorly managed conflicts have a cost attached to them. As per a survey, the average employee spends 2.1 hours a week dealing with workplace conflict.

Various negative outcomes may also arise from workplace conflicts. Sometimes these conflicts can lead to personal attacks. Sometimes it results in sickness or absence.

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