Can’t see eye to eye with that annoying colleague? This is how to overcome workplace conflict in the office.
We’re all not strangers to conflict. It’s something we face in our everyday lives – whether that’s having a spat with a partner, or getting into quarrels with a friend or loved one. In these instances, (after taking time to cool off) we tend to know exactly what to say or do to remedy the situation. But what do we do when we get into a dispute with colleagues in the office? That can be a tricky situation to navigate, especially if not handled sensitively. Before you think of switching careers to avoid that difficult conversation, check out these expert tips on how to resolve workplace conflict.
Is conflict always a bad thing?
Let’s dive in. But first, you’ve gotta know that workplace conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a natural and inevitable occurrence, and can be a sign you’ve got a healthy amount of diversity in your team.
“Without differing opinions, you may experience a smooth work life, but you’d lack diversity of thought,” explains Lau Li Choo, mediation specialist at Eagles Mediation & Counselling Centre. “How would you know if you have the best ideas and solutions if you only have one way of thinking? Business growth will surely be stunted.”
But while conflict can be good, there’s a lot you can stand to lose if disagreements aren’t handled well. Resentment can fester, and the unhappiness your employees feel can spill over into their quality of work. “Conflict can escalate when incorrect and unproductive interventions are used, detracting from other important work,” says Sean Lim, managing director and certified mediator at Peacemakers. “This can be incredibly detrimental to the mental and physical health of employees.”
What does this mean if you’re a business manager or owner? Well, you might observe a large dip in employee morale, high turnover rates and low productivity that may eventually result in a loss in revenue.
Sources of conflict in the workplace
We don’t know about you, but we’ve definitely been there. When working on projects that require a lot of teamwork, it can be frustrating to deal with a stubborn or less than empathetic colleague. Even worse when the brooding unhappiness is ignored by upper management and you feel like you’re left to fend for yourself. Perhaps the key to resolving workplace conflict and making peace with your coworkers lies in understanding why it sparks in the first place. Experts share a number of common reasons we can expect.
“Disputes often arise over miscommunications and misunderstandings,” Sean says. “This can look like mismatched and unmet expectations, confusion about job roles and responsibilities, and even complete misunderstandings between personal perceptions and reality.”
A lack of resources can also result in employees struggling to do their jobs well, causing disharmony in the process. “Pressure to compete for those resources can arise, and others may feel they’re being pushed too hard to perform. Or that their workloads are unmanageable compared to the resources and support they are given,” Sean says.
Li Choo shares another contributing factor to workplace conflict may be the unequal power balance between those in authority and those under them. For example, a manager needing more data added to a report, and a subordinate who feels they can’t turn down this request despite the sudden increase in workload on their end. This resentment can build overtime.
Perhaps it’s also important to recognise that work can be frustrating – for everyone. We’re only human after all. It’s no wonder that strong emotions can manifest physically if not addressed in time.
Now that we know what causes workplace conflict, here’s how we can go about resolving it effectively.
How to resolve workplace conflict
1. Early intervention works miracles
Most employers only think of sending business leaders and managers for conflict management training. This is great, especially if you have the right strategies and policies in place for when employees approach you to mediate disputes. But what can actually be the most helpful for your business is providing all staff the same learning opportunity. This helps them pick up the necessary skills they need to tackle smaller disputes they might face within teams.
“Not every issue needs to be escalated [to upper management],” Sean explains. “Having all staff competent in conflict management and building a culture of effective early intervention can save an organisation a great deal of time and resources.”
2. Don’t play the victim card
Find yourself butting heads with a coworker? This might seem counterintuitive, but while you feel like you’ve been wronged, it’s important not to play the victim card. Why not? Li Choo shares that this can lead us to second guess our colleague’s motives and reasons, putting a negative spin where there may not be any. Instead, come prepared to have an open discussion instead of inviting confrontation.
“We all find it hard to hear criticism, and it’s natural for our immediate thoughts to also be negative,” she shares. “Take some time to reflect on your response. Try to have empathy for your colleague and think about the possible reasons or unmet needs that might have resulted in this conflict.” This can help us better understand our workmates, and you’ll be one step closer to building an environment that’s void of toxicity.
3. Hop on a video call
Even if you’re operating on a remote or hybrid working system, that isn’t an excuse to leave issues unresolved. If you’re unhappy, let your colleague know, and hop on a video call to clear things up as soon as you can. Don’t forget to turn on your camera when speaking!
Li Choo shares that according to research, 55% of meaning is communicated through body language. As such, ensure that at least the upper third of your body can be seen on screen, so your hand gestures are visible to the recipient. Feel like what you’re discussing is uncomfortable for your colleague to hear? Li Choo suggests moving your face closer to the camera and looking directly in it, as though making eye contact.
We guess we’ll be turning our cameras on the next time we’re having a serious discussion on a Zoom meeting or finding ways to communicate effectively to avoid conflict.
It might be tough for us to walk the talk (especially for introverts). But when it’s to do with workplace conflict, it’s worth remembering that having a tough conversation is much better than harbouring resentment for our fellow coworkers.