September 25, 2023

Managing Conflict in the Workplace

By Simone Putnam, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Partner-in-Charge, Managed Human Resources Services

Managing Conflict in the Workplace Managed Human Resources Services

I have had the pleasure of working with hundreds of nonprofit leaders over the past 23 years, and they all have a similar objective of creating a high-impact organization. After all, isn’t the point of any nonprofit to make the greatest impact possible for its constituents? So, what gets in the way of meeting this objective? From my viewpoint, it’s unresolved conflict in the workplace.

How do leaders address conflict in the workplace? Is it realistic to expect if you hire all the right people (passion for the mission, the ideal skillset for each position, etc.) that conflict will not arise? In my experience, the potential for conflict exists anytime you put two or more people together. Conflict in and of itself is not the problem; instead, allowing conflict to linger unresolved is where the negative impact on the organization occurs.

Unresolved conflict can result in decreased productivity, failure to meet deadlines, and depressed morale of a department or organization. Rarely do the negative implications of conflict between two or more individuals stay isolated to those individuals; rather, it permeates throughout a department or even throughout an entire organization. How do organizations manage conflict in the workplace so that it is addressed timely with minimal impact on the organization’s effectiveness/impact?

I recommend that organizations establish and communicate workplace norms, which are shared expectations and agreements that guide workplace behaviors. Some of my favorite workplace norms include:

  • Assume positive intent in all interactions
  • Engage in active listening (seek to understand)
  • Treat everyone with dignity and respect
  • Recognize differences in communication styles and preferences
  • Acknowledge/reflect on your own unconscious bias

After establishing and communicating your organization’s workplace norms, spend time exploring them in both department and full organization-wide settings, identifying how they promote harmonious working relationships, and identifying challenges to each workplace norm.

Challenges to the workplace norms may include the following:

  • Prior life and workplace experiences sometimes make it difficult for employees to approach every interaction assuming positive intent.
  • Many people default to focusing on getting their point across, thus overlooking the importance of engaging in active listening and seeking to understand the other person’s point of view.
  • When frustrations run high, some individuals are so inwardly focused on how they feel in the moment that they do not ensure they are always being respectful in words and tone.
  • People generally default to their preferred communication style, leaving room for miscommunication with someone who prefers a different style.
  • Every person brings unconscious bias to how they show up in the workplace.

By taking a deep dive into your organization’s workplace norms, you help solidify their importance and address any challenges to everyone living these norms in the workplace. Let’s say everyone at your organization subscribes to your workplace norms and shows up to work every day, contributing their very best. Does that mean you’ve created a workplace culture void of conflict? Unfortunately, no. If everyone subscribes to your organization’s workplace norms, the number of conflicts should be reduced, and perhaps more importantly, workplace norms provide guidance through which workplace conflict can be resolved.

Conflicts in the workplace are typically rooted in a lack of clarity and alignment of expectations and ineffective communication. Common conflict triggers include:

  • Differing communication styles.
  • Misinterpreting tone.
  • A hybrid working environment (it takes longer to get to know someone/develop a strong working relationship based on trust when operating in a hybrid environment).
  • Ineffective listening.
  • A lack of transparency in communication.

Your team members can minimize conflict in the workplace by being deliberate in their communication, taking into account the other person and what is known about their communication style. Factoring non-work conversations into the workday/workweek to get to know team members on a personal level appropriate to the workplace strengthens workplace relationships, thus reducing conflict. Sharing information among team members and across departments as appropriate contributes to communication transparency, reducing the potential for disputes.

Common conflict resolution pitfalls that we see include employees assuming their position is the correct position, and the other person is wrong; expecting others in the workplace to cater to their style and preferences – cooperation requires compromise; avoiding self-reflection – not understanding how they show up; pretending conflict doesn’t exist; and, holding a grudge – refusing to allow another person grace to change their behavior.

Effective conflict resolution is based on team members following your organization’s workplace norms. The first step is to recognize/acknowledge that a conflict exists. Each team member should reflect on their actions, body language, tone, words, etc., that may have contributed to the conflict. Team members must commit to working through their issues with a spirit of cooperation, which means genuinely seeking to understand the other person’s point of view, and team members should commit to learning from the conflict and resulting resolution, thus strengthening workplace relationships.

Given that your employees may not have significant experience working through conflict in the workplace, we advise organizations to have an experienced HR team member (whether inside your organization or outsourced to an HR firm) available to support employees who need to work through conflict with their team members. With each conflict resolution experience, your employees will gain valuable insight and conflict resolution skills. Over time, employees will learn to use conflict resolution skills in their daily interactions with team members, thus further reducing the potential for conflict in the workplace.