Workplace Conflict: Fight the War, Not the Battle

Morgan Grant

Conflict in the workplace is a common occurrence, and is likely to impact every workplace because of different personalities working together. Workplace conflict can be something as small as a disagreement on how to handle a problem, or as big as a manager who is emotionally abusing your employees. But knowing how to handle and resolve conflict can mean the difference between a minor dust-up between two, or more people and a toxic work environment.

The Impact of Workplace Conflict

Besides bruised egos and burned bridges, workplace conflict can also lead to a negative impact on resources.

According to a workplace study conducted by CPP Global, on average, “employees spend 2.1 hours every week – approximately one day a month – dealing with conflict in some way.” In the US, that translates to 385 million working days spent every year resolving conflict. That time spent in conflict is lost productivity, ultimately costing employers money and lost revenue. The amount of time spent resolving conflict equals $359 billion in paid hours. And then when you factor in downtime and absenteeism (even just taking focus away from the task at hand) it calculates to a considerable loss.

Impact on Employees

If you’re in a situation where one employee is constantly the source of conflict among other coworkers, employers may find their best employees being driven out by a bad seed. Instead of allowing various conflict situations play out, employers may be best served to remove the source of frustration in order to hold on to their more valuable team members.

The Benefits of Conflict

It may not seem like it, but there can be some benefits to workplace conflict. In fact, CPP Global says that “among all employees, 76% have seen conflict lead to a positive outcome, create better understanding of others (41%) or uncover a better solution to a workplace problem (29%)”. When done in a respectful, civil manner, workplace conflict can be an opportunity for healthy debate among employees – allowing people from various backgrounds and experience to exchange ideas. The key to this is to remain respectful of others and focus on resolving the issue, not placing blame on fellow employees.

Many people believe that from conflict, change is born. Once you’ve moved past the problem and found a solution, what remains is a change for the better. Conflict can also be used to strengthen and make improvements upon weaknesses you may not have noticed otherwise. In many instances, employees that were once at odds with each other can find common ground to forge new relationships having gone through conflict. It’s important that employers help facilitate these conversations to help walk through the issues and maintain focus on the end goal.

Conflict Management Tips

For employers that want to find the upside to workplace conflict, there are some guidelines to follow to ensure the result is a better workplace, not a toxic culture. These include:

Fight the War, Not the Battle No matter the type of conflict, there is always a deeper issue beneath the surface. Employers should help employees walk through the issues that are at the root of the conflict. This may include addressing behavioral issues, but stay focused on seeking a resolution. This way, you avoid fighting the same battle month after month.

Predict Causes of Potential Conflict – It’s much easier to work through conflict if you can predict the cause. Certain actions or situations can often create conflict, such as a recent promotion, rejection of a project or idea, or change in organization structure. As an employer you can work proactively if you know these situations are coming by communicating with team members, openly addressing any potential feelings that could be impacted by the decision, and helping employees understand the ‘why’ behind the decisions.

Hear Both Sides, Separately; Talk About a Solution Together – According to CPP, the single most critical activity for effective conflict management is conversation. It may be more beneficial to have informal one-to-one conversations with direct reports.

If there’s a problem between two employees, let them talk with you privately. Be sure to hear both sides and take time to think on the matter before talking with the team together. This shows that you care and want to come to a solution, rather than pick sides. Then, have a meeting with the two of them and discuss ways to move past the problem. Do not declare someone right or wrong, just work through the issue and come to an agreement and plan of action for moving forward.

Be a Leader – The employer helps to set the tone for the organization or department. If you expect people to behave a certain way, you need to lead by example. And when conflict happens to you, work through it by following your own guidelines. Employees will not only follow your lead, but respect you even more for it.

Balance is essential in keeping up morale and productivity in the workplace. While conflict can easily disrupt balance, and turn your workplace into a resource-draining drama, you can also gain from it. What matters is the way you approach conflict – either as an impossible obstacle or an opportunity for improvement. The choice is yours.

*Based on average hourly earnings of $17.95, seasonally adjusted, non-farm workers. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2008.