Conflict avoidance: It’s what tends to get most of us in trouble when it comes to managing relationships and correcting miscommunication in the workplace. Attempting to keep the peace by letting problems fester only creates more discord. What often start out as small communication issues can escalate into team-breaking situations if left unmanaged.
While uncomfortable, addressing conflict head on before it gets out of control is always the better option. Fear is, of course, the root of conflict-avoidance; but as managers and owners, we don’t have the luxury of indulging that fear. Our job is to inspire confidence and communicate openly and clearly. If we act fearful of conflict, we’ll create insecurities and negative behavior among our staff.
Personality clashes are unavoidable in most work environments and some level of conflict between employees, or between a manager and employee, is to be expected. We’ve all worked with people we didn’t like or click with. Rather than thinking you can prevent all conflict, it’s better to focus on how to spot the warning signs of a brewing situation, and on strategies for how to diffuse conflict when it arises.
Spot subtle signs
Subtle signs of conflict are all around us. Snide or passive-aggressive comments thrown out in casual work situations or meetings are a red flag that something is going on you need to address. While pseudo-subtle comments may seem harmless on the surface, they could represent a pattern of toxic behavior that your other employees have had to tolerate for a long period of time. “Forgetting” to take care of things that have been repeatedly assigned is another good passive-aggressive coping strategy. In situations such as these, it’s a good idea to have a face-to-face with the person in question to ask (non-aggressively) if there is something specific bothering them about you or how you handled a specific situation. Attempt to first bring their guard down in a non-threatening manner in order to get to the real root of the problem.
Root out rot
Don’t let one bad apple ruin the rest of the barrel. I find that one of the most destructive things a manager can do is allow a negative, poor-performing, or non-compliant employee to cause problems for the rest of the team, unchecked. When someone else is constantly keeping you from doing your job well, it can be terribly demoralizing. Toxic personalities can drain the life out of everyone else on your team, resulting in lost revenue and opportunity for all involved. Firing people is never fun, and most managers will avoid this solution far too long because they fear the negativity or conflict — or the prospect of having to rehire. Sometimes letting someone go is the best and most efficient solution for everyone, including the person getting fired. It also sends a clear signal of support to the rest of the team.
Most people are not that good at leaving their personal problems at the door when they get to work. We’re human. Personal and family stressors are often the cause of a lack of focus and clear communication that can lead to conflict. You never know what someone might be dealing with that’s causing them to act negatively. As a manager or owner, it’s not your responsibility to help or solve personal problems for your employees. But ignoring the fact that they may be the root cause of workplace conflict won’t help you or your business.
If you have an employee whose performance or interactions with co-workers has taken a downturn, it might be time to sit down with them to lend an ear. While you can’t solve their personal problems, you can acknowledge that you observe them to be struggling and find ways to help them refocus on the job, so they can stabilize this one very important aspect of their life. Doing so can help them to better address their personal issues on personal time.
Not all conflict is bad conflict. Stay with me here. Sometimes the strongest relationships come out of initial conflict and misunderstanding. Friction can breed a lot of creativity, if it’s managed properly. You may find it’s your top performers that can’t seem to get along — that’s probably because they feel competitive with one another. Competition among employees can be healthy if there are clear goals and rewards for specific performance targets. You must also ensure that incentive programs are fair. Pay attention to unhealthy competition and step in quickly to mediate such conflicts before they escalate.
Don’t make it personal
Personal bias can seep into our actions as managers and owners, even if we have good intent. It’s always important to focus on the problem at hand, rather than the person. If it appears you prioritize the concerns or complaints of employees you favor, whilst dismissing those of employees you might not click as well with, you’ll only create more conflict.
Be sure you have a clear policy and protocol in place for dealing with workplace conflict, so response and action are swift, decisive, and professional. Remember, the rest of your staff is always watching you to see how you’ll handle inappropriate behavior by other employees.