From Both Sides: How to Deal With Interpersonal Workplace Conflict
The workplace is wrought with conflict. Some is healthy — like two employees vying for the most sales or competing for a promotion — while other conflict isn’t. Snide comments, stolen credit, passive aggressive behavior and personal habits like loud chewing can rip an office apart if left unchecked.
The question is: Who is responsible for solving these problems? To an extent, managers have a responsibility to step in. But employees also need to try to work out problems on their own.
Let’s look at interpersonal conflict management from both sides: how managers and employees see the issue.
Managers: Your Employees Need Your Support
One of the hardest parts of leading is understanding when to step in and when to let the problem work itself out. New managers can start to make these decisions by identifying healthy conflict and confrontation.
Ashira Prossack, Millennial and Gen Z Engagement expert, recommends keeping a finger on the pulse of the office to look for noticable changes in employee moods. A few signs to look for include:
Disengaged employees checking out of certain projects.
A sullen mood coming from multiple employees.
Any signs of hostility from employees.
Changes in how team members work, respond and communicate.
This can give you a sign to know when it’s time to step in and make sure the competition and banter is actually healthy.
Management Can Stop Conflict In Its Tracks
Address the conflict immediately, Sabrina Son writes at TINYPulse. The longer you let the conflict fester, the more it’s going to grow into a bigger problem.
If you don’t step in, more negative comments, actions, or slights can occur, escalating what might have been a misunderstanding into a feud. Conflicting employees, not having a team leader to calm them down, may build seemingly minor disagreements to the point where one person (or both) considers quitting.
Plus, over time, facts fade away. Stories become more dramatic as only the emotion is left, and you’ve got employees pointing fingers at each other. The sooner conflict is addressed, the better.
That said, not every conflict will quickly rage out of control. Some may grow over time, without many workers noticing. The difference between them is that one is a hot conflict and one is a cold conflict, Mark Gerzon, author of Leading through Conflict and president of Mediators Foundation, explains.
Hot conflict is obvious. It cannot be kept under control and involves yelling, name calling, with the threat of physical violence. Employees feel like they have been pushed to the edge.
Cold conflict often flies under the radar. It involves cold shoulders, exclusion and passive aggressive behavior.
While you may need to wait for a heated conflict to cool down, resolving a cold conflict can feel like moving a glacier. There are weeks (possibly months and years) of resentment formed in layers over a cold conflict, and it will be hard to solve the problems between these employees with just one mediation session.
Make Sure Your Employees Can Come to You With Problems
Your employees need to feel comfortable coming to you with problems. If they are handling a situation improperly, you want them to feel comfortable approaching you about it. Some managers dismiss conflict and lead employees to hide their problems instead.
“Your actions (and reactions) to what people are doing and how they’re doing it are crucial,” business growth coach Cathy McCullough at Rhythm Systems says. If you use their mistakes as a teachable moment, they will know it’s okay to be honest with their shortcomings instead of trying to bury them.
Even if you don’t get involved in the problem, it helps to know what is going on. Your employee might simply be looking for someone to talk to before they solve the problem on their own anyway.
“Keep in mind that often, all the employee is seeking is validation of their feelings,” Carol Wood, People Operations Director at Homebase writes. “Empathy from their manager may be all that is needed for the employee to move forward.”
Wood advises managers to listen for as long as they feel comfortable, and to really try to make team members feel heard. This will increase their trust in you, which means they will be more likely to follow your advice or take action on any solutions you provide.
Keep An Objective View of the Situation
One of the most important factors when listening to your employees is remaining objective. Remember, there are two sides to every story and you shouldn’t take one side as truth.
“If you can’t figure out what’s wrong by talking to the employees directly, talk to some of the coworkers closest to them,” Eric Czerwonka, cofounder of employee time tracking software company Buddy Punch, writes. “If their coworkers’ argument has been truly disruptive, they’ll be more than willing to cooperate with you. You’ll be amazed at how much they’ve noticed.”
Most people want to work in a conflict-free environment. Listening to third parties can help you come up with objective views of the problem that leads to a solution.
Give Employees Support When You Step Back
You may be tempted to jump in when a situation arises when you first start out, but you could actually be teaching your employees to rely on you whenever there’s an uncomfortable situation. As you gain experience, and your employees work with you longer, you may be able to step back more often.
Social scientist for business performance and cofounder of corporate training company Joseph Grenny encourages managers to take a step back and ask “Who owns the problem?” in a situation. If you don’t own the problem or are responsible for a result, then make sure your team members have the guidance and tools to solve the problem, and then let them move forward.
You will, however, want to keep an eye on the conflict in the event that it escalates.
If you encourage employees to mediate issues on their own, they develop confidence in their ability to address conflict, education development manager Kelly Gregorio says. She suggests that managers let their employees know that they have faith in the team’s ability to solve problems and work through disagreements. Let your team members know that you trust them enough to address the problem professionally — and only come to you when the problem is serious.
Employees: Your Boss Will Appreciate Your Conflict Resolution Skills
While managers need to build tools to mediate personal conflicts between employees, they really want you to work out the problems on your own. If you can mediate with the conflicting party or compromise through a third-party, then you can save your manager serious headaches.
Make Sure Both Parties Are Willing to Work Through Their Problems
When you do moderate with your coworker, make sure you’re both coming from a place of compromise and willingness to work through your problems. No one wants to sit at a table with a foe who expects an apology and plans to list your faults. Try to find a base level where you are on the same side and slowly work outward until you find where your differences lie.
“Looking for agreement demonstrates your willingness to seek out common ground and build a relationship around those trust elements,” Mike Kappel, CEO of Patriot Software writes.
Praveen Tipirneni, M.D., CEO at Morphic Therapeutic, agrees with this method, and says employees shouldn’t come to the bargaining table “trying to get their share of the pie.”
He essentially means that many people approach conflict resolution as a win or lose situation. They will either walk away with majority of what they want or next to nothing. Instead, Tipirneni enourages teams to think of negotiations as “expanding the pie.” This is an opportunity for both parties to come up with new solutions and possibilities to make sure everyone goes home feeling like they got the majority of the pie.
Peer Compromises Often Lead to Better Results
There’s an added bonus to mediating conflict when you have a problem with a coworker, rather than expecting an authority figure to solve your problems for you: The solutions tend to last longer and have better results.
“Your colleagues are more likely to own the decision and follow through with it if they’re involved in making it,” professors Jeanne Brett and Stephen B. Goldberg write at Harvard Business Review. “If you dictate what they should do, they will have learned nothing about resolving conflict themselves. Rather, they will have become more dependent on you to figure out their disputes for them.”
There is a time and a place for turning to your manager for help, but if you can build your mediation skills and learn to solve conflict constructively, you will have stronger conflict resolution abilities than most people in the workplace.
Don’t Just Target the Symptom
Steve Rossetti at Synergy encourages employees to solve the actual problem, not just the symptoms. You might argue with a coworker over a particular event or topic, using it as an example to prove their point. If they only focus on that one event, rather than the big picture of the problems you’re having, then you’re doomed to face similar (and possibly escalated) conflicts in the future.
Try to figure out why one particular instance frustrates you so much, or why your coworker keeps bringing up one topic, and try to see the bigger picture of what both of you are trying to say.
One way to start a productive discussion is to lead with a solution-based question. Instead of opening the floor to he-said-she-said, ask each person what they hope to get out of the meeting. Lisa McKale at Progress Women’s Leadership makes multiple suggestions for openers to guide the conversation:
What do you need?
What are your choices here?
What would be the ideal outcome?
You want to focus on moving forward and solving problems, not dwelling on stories of injustice and snide comments.
Learn How You React to Your Team Members
As you come to the table to compromise, try to learn more about your coworker and where they are coming from in the situation.
Both managers and employees need to learn how team members react when they’re angry or upset, Kate Simpson at employee engagement solutions provider Hppy writes. Some will bury their emotions in an effort to be professional, and you won’t know they’re unhappy until they quit. Others will be prone to loud outbursts that can feel aggressive. Knowing your peers will help you anticipate a response.
It also helps to understand whether the problem between you and your coworker is a specific problem with you, or if that’s just their attitude at the company, director of coaching at Preferred Transition Resources Kathleen Brady says.
“If it is everyone, you can either ignore the annoyance — odds are other people see it too — or find a way to gently call that person out on the negativity.”
She provides a few suggestions for what you can lead with:
You have squashed every idea presented. What do YOU think we should do?
Instead of focusing on all the reasons this can’t work, let’s think about how it might work.
This allows you to stick up for yourself without tearing down your coworker and escalating the conflict into something personal, or something that requires intervention from management.
Each conflict is different. Not all problems can be solved without management, but not all problems need intervention. Knowing when to get involved and having strong conflict resolution skills can prepare you for whatever issues arise in the workplace.