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Tips to Prevent Conflict in the Workplace

If leaders take the necessary steps and notice the right cues, they can help avoid or mitigate workplace conflicts.

May 12, 2011
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Some leaders may stand on the sidelines as workplace conflicts play out because they think they can’t make everyone get along, but ignoring clashes in the office may have a bigger impact down the line.

“[In some organizations, this type of] behavior is tolerated and unaddressed by people at all levels of the organization for a period, if not explicitly encouraged,” said Richard D. Hart, respectful workplace specialist at ProActive ReSolutions, a workplace conflict resolution company. “Over time, the behavior and related impact escalate to a point that others are finally forced to pay attention – the proverbial last straw.”

Hart typically assists leaders who are dealing with disruptive and disrespectful employees. The scenarios are fairly similar each time: Employees are involved in chronic, long-term, “low-level behaviors,” such as failing to respond, rolling of the eyes, avoiding eye contact, sarcasm and belittling, Hart said.

Preventing this type of behavior requires leaders to focus on people’s actions, not their feelings, personalities, perception, beliefs, values, expectations and other things – not because they aren’t important, but because it’s difficult for an organization to change such traits, Hart said.

What matters most is how the employees work as a group. “People’s behavior in a workgroup is both the best predictor of conflict and the best indicator of conflict,” Hart said.

Once people stop communicating because conflict has occurred, an organization can see effects on the bottom line. The company may lose employees or lose out on productivity because certain employees don’t or can’t work together.

“People who don’t like each other who are having difficulty and are in conflict with each other typically aren’t talking to each other,” said Tim Scudder, CEO of Personal Strengths USA, a workplace conflicts consulting company and author of Have a Nice Conflict. “They’re not sharing information. They’re not collaborating. It can start to create the silo effect where we’re solving problem[s] only for ourselves without solving problems for the broader team. When those types of small problems become common inside an organization, it really starts to affect the whole culture.”

When it begins happening on a broader scale, the information people need to perform their jobs effectively is not free flowing, and this can result in a drop in productivity, retention, etc. 

To avoid this, there are steps leaders can take to prevent conflict. Hart said every organization should focus on three outcomes in the workplace. Ensure that:
1.    Everyone at all levels of the organization consistently treats others with respect.
2.    Everyone in the organization participates actively in the workplace, so information is shared, co-workers assist each other and workers help solve problems.
3.    Everyone in the workplace speaks out to managers and colleagues about important issues affecting them or others.

The best way to achieve these outcomes is to build capacity in three areas, Hart said:
•    Prevent problems between people by helping them interact respectfully with each other.
•    Repair relationships broken by conflict by bringing people together to work through issues and get agreement on future behaviors.
•    Protect people from the harm of extreme behavior such as violence by understanding and managing risks in specific cases.

Still, in certain cases, there’s the potential to learn from conflict, so it needn’t always be avoided.

“When we avoid conflict, we miss the opportunities that are inherent in embracing conflict,” Scudder said. “When we embrace conflict, we get a chance to learn what matters to people. People only go into conflict about things that are important. We don’t have conflict about stuff we don’t care about.”

Each time a conflict arises, there’s an opportunity to learn the values of the people who are in that conflict, Scudder said.

“You have a chance to learn what matters to them,” Scudder said. “When you resolve that conflict in a way that is respectful and restorative of those values, you end up building a much stronger relationship.”

Avoidance is looking away from the problem that has already arisen, he said. But to prevent conflict, one must look at the potential for conflict and take measures to stop it from happening.

Conflict could lead to healthy outcomes if dealt with properly, Hart said. A conflict can be an opportunity for people to step forward, display leadership skills and build collaborative and trusting relationships. It’s up to those involved to solve it. Making room for differences of opinion, debate and engagement is important, and the lack thereof may be signs of an unhealthy environment.

“Once people start to behave differently and respond to workplace difficulties differently, there is far greater chance of the other things changing as well,” Hart said.

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