Workplace conflict is bad for business. All too often, managers first take note of the problem when they are tasked to fix low productivity, increased absenteeism, loss of key employees to the competition, etc. This, in fact, is what advanced stages of workplace conflict look like. It does not occur suddenly or come out of nowhere. One of the most valuable investments an organization can make is to train managers and supervisors to recognize signs of workplace conflict and how to manage it effectively. Disagreements at organizations commonly escalate into serious workplace conflicts when a supervisor mishandles the situation.
What Causes Workplace Conflict?
Workplace conflict is best understood as a disagreement or competition with an element of mutual hostility. Two friends can disagree on a topic, but it will not turn into a conflict if they have respect and affection for each other. Similarly, take the example of professional sports, like hockey. While players compete fiercely with each other, they will handle skirmishes cordially and display good sportsmanship in defeat. But sparks of conflict can fly when two players, who personally or professionally dislike each other, clash on the court.
Early intervention is the most effective way to keep it from germinating into a serious matter that directly impacts profitability at your organization.
Signs of Workplace Conflict
Recognizing early signs of workplace conflict is a key skill for managers and supervisors. You can assess this by remaining vigilant about how your team members interact, communicate and support each other. The following are examples of red flags that point to undercurrents of a workplace conflict.
- A high rate of absenteeism, stress leave and sick leave is a surefire sign of a serious problem. Managers should investigate and intervene immediately. Your workplace conflict has escalated at this stage because it takes time to impact the mental health of your employees. You may even require an external consultant to probe the matter and mediate.
- Negative gossip exists in every organization and it does not always indicate a problem. But if it negatively impacts an individual and persists, then something is awry in your department.
- If you notice employees consistently working through backchannels or going through intermediaries instead of asking the co-worker in charge, find out why. Avoidance of a particular individual or department points to a breakdown in the smooth operation of the business.
- Acts of subterfuge should always raise your concern. However, this can be very subtle. Sometimes, individuals will engage outside suppliers over internal resources when they want to avoid certain individuals and departments.
- Silence and minimal engagement at team meetings should be a very loud warning bell for managers. Surface harmony sometimes masks deeper conflicts and indicates that people are afraid to speak up.
If you notice one or two examples like these, you might be able to nip the problem in the bud. But if many of these have become endemic in your workplace, then you should begin an assessment of your workplace culture and implement workplace restoration measures.
Managing Workplace Conflict
While recognizing early signs of workplace conflict is a key skill for managers and supervisors, managing conflict is a whole other matter. When a mediator mishandles the resolution of minor conflicts between employees they could leave one employee with a perception of disrespect or a sense of unfairness. This now becomes the foundation that fuels future incidents between the two staff members. They will blow small issues out of proportion, become uncooperative with each other and introduce inefficiencies in an otherwise well-run business. The longer you leave this unattended, the worse the problem will become. Conflict management is one of the most difficult challenges for any HR or business leader. Sometimes, engaging a skilled mediator from outside your organization can help you bring things back in line productively, effectively and efficiently.
About The Author
Dr. Jeanette Bicknell, founder and CEO of Bicknell Mediation, is a Chartered Mediator, Workplace Investigator, and Dispute Resolution Specialist.
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