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How to Identify and Address Conflict in the Workplace

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​Conflict is inevitable in the workplace, so it's important to confront conflict when it first arises, before there's a chance for the situation to worsen, said Christy L. Foley during a presentation at the SHRM Talent Conference & Expo in Denver on April 13.

Foley is the founder of Orlando, Fla.-based E-Mediation Services. She also is chairwoman of Florida's Mediator Ethics Committee, an officer in the Florida Bar's Alternative Dispute Resolution Section and a visiting lecturer at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

"A lot of times when conflict does pop up, people kind of let it simmer. It simmers in their brains, it simmers in their hearts and eventually you start to have a lot of negative morale—and negative morale is contagious," she said.

"If you don't confront conflict when you first see it, the problem is going to get really big. When it's big, it's harder to deal with. More people are usually involved, and it usually has more long-lasting effects that are hard to get rid of," such as poor morale and decreased productivity.

"It's important that if you really want to be a good leader within your workplace, you identify the early signs of conflict, when they're easier to resolve and less likely to negatively impact the people involved," she said.

Forms of Conflict

Conflict can have many causes, Foley noted, including:

  • Understaffing. This is a particular problem during the Great Resignation. Managers are frustrated at having reduced staffing, customers are unhappy about the resulting service they are receiving and workers are burned out from assuming the work of co-workers who have left.
  • Remote work preferences. The desire to work remotely may not mesh with certain jobs or the organization's vision for how certain jobs are performed.
  • Generational gaps. This is happening more frequently, Foley said. "Those generational gaps really are a big deal. People of different generations have different ways of thinking about things, from their work ethic or how something should get done."
  • Miscommunication and not understanding another person's perspective. It may be different styles of communicating, people not listening attentively to each other or simply a matter of crossed signals, but miscommunication can be "a huge source of conflict in the long run," Foley said.
  • Varying work ethics. Your team may include people who won't work one minute past the end of their shifts and others who regularly take on extra tasks and work additional hours. The latter group may resent co-workers—or their boss—for allowing this situation to develop.
  • Different ideas about how the company, department or team is operating. "When different leaders with the company have different visions of where the company should go, even at a department level … they're going to start to butt heads," she said, leading to a negative environment.
  • Competing alpha personalities. "Managers are usually alpha personalities," Foley pointed out. "But when they hire other people who are alpha personalities like them, all of a sudden you have a bunch of people who want to be leaders when only a handful of people in the department can actually be leaders. So, it's important to watch out for work environments like that."

Signs of Conflict

Disagreements and conflict in the workplace are signaled in a variety of ways, including:

  • Confusion. "If there's confusion, then that's a sign there's some sort of conflict. There's some sort of resistance to whatever is being done," Foley said.  Quickly address the confusion by being transparent and answering questions, such as sharing with employees the factors that went into making a decision. "They may still choose to disagree with the decision, but at least they won't be confused by it. They'll understand the factors at play."
  • Burnout. This might be signaled by workers who constantly call in sick or often talk about how overwhelmed they are with work demands. Talk to them—and really listen.

    She suggested, "When you ask about what they did over the weekend and they say, 'Oh I worked all weekend,' make sure you talk to those people about why they're working so much. Is this something you knew about?" If so, show appreciation for their work or apologize for the situation that is creating extra demands on them, such as an understaffing issue. If not, delve deeper to learn why they are putting in long hours, and see if you can help them better prioritize or delegate their workload to avoid the excess stress.

  • Complaints. This is a clear sign of conflict. Foley urged leaders to figure out the root of the complaints so as to address it with employees.

Resolving Conflicts

Foley recommended taking the following actions:

  • Create a private setting for a conversation with the person or parties involved. She highly recommended talking one-on-one with each person to get his or her perspective, then bringing the parties together for a conversation.
  • Encourage people to speak openly. Give them your full attention. Step away from your computer. Perhaps move your chair away from behind your desk to facilitate active listening.

    Consider opening the conversation by saying something such as, "I'm trying to figure out what's going on here. I've noticed you don't quite seem like yourself. I feel like something must be up and wanted to give you an opportunity to talk to me to see if there's anything I can do to help you," Foley said.

  • Let the people you are talking with know you are open to constructive feedback. Tell them, "I'd love it if we could just talk openly, whatever's on your mind … because I feel like something's upsetting you right now. If it's me, tell me. By all means, I'm open to your feedback because I value your insight into how this company is run," she said.
  • Be transparent and avoid being defensive and competitive. "You want to give people all the details you have and all the factors that went into any decision-making" that prompted the conflict, Foley said. If it's about the lack of a promotion or raise, for example, it can help workers learn what they need to improve on to become better employees and achieve their goals in the future.

    Refrain from being defensive or competitive if the conflict involves you as a leader, Foley said.

    "You may have no idea the person was mad at you. Sometimes it's the people who intend no harm who wind up [getting] the most defensive in these kinds of situations because their intent was so pure," she said. If this happens, ask the other person if you may take a five-minute break so you can process the information and compose yourself. Then return to the conversation.

    Competitiveness can be its own source of conflict—whether over an assignment or recognition the other person desired. If conflict is the result of employees accusing you of being competitive to their—or the team's—detriment, be transparent so they better understand the decision that was made.

  • Reframe what the person said. When the employee has finished talking, restate what you heard and ask them to let you know if you heard them correctly. This is to make sure there isn't any miscommunication and to demonstrate that you want to understand them.
  • Show empathy. Acknowledge that you understand they are going through something difficult; you are not trying to fix the problem or putting a positive spin on something troubling them, but being present and understanding.
  • Create opportunities for cooperation. Brainstorm creative solutions together so it's not you as a leader issuing a solution. 
  • Have a follow-up plan. This includes checking in with employees later to see how they are faring post-discussion. If the solution to solve the conflict requires others to be involved, notify them.

    Be attentive to future signs of conflict going forward, Foley advised. "Once we get to know people, once we build those relationships with them, we can be more attentive … and notice those signs of conflict early on."


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