Avoiding Conflict in the Workplace

Avoiding Workplace Conflict

When considering places to try and bypass confrontation, avoiding conflict in the workplace is often at the top of the list. Most employees prefer to move through their tasks for the day without dealing with frustrated or angry coworkers or having to sit through endless meetings with their colleagues and bosses. 

However, conflict in the workplace is a fact of life, and many employees will find themselves amid a conflict, big or small, a few times within their careers. Yet, there are ways that employees and employers can work together to maintain positive relationships and avoid workspace conflicts, creating a space where conflict, when unavoidable, is not devastating to a team or a workplace. 

Understanding a few causes of conflict in the workplace and implementing steps that one can take to create a positive environment that avoids unnecessary conflict will ensure that each workplace is a safe and encouraging place for employees, which will benefit the employee and employer alike.  

Common Causes of Workplace Conflict: 

Conflict is a dispute or disagreement between two or more parties that is not easily resolved or addressed. There are often many layers to a conflict that affect how and why a party will respond the way that they do. While there is not just one cause for conflict, patterns, and behaviors often contribute to the severity of the conflict. While identifying the exact cause is not always necessary, it can help determine how to avoid similar conflicts in the future. 

For many workplace conflicts, the cause includes one or more of the following:

  • Communication: One of the most common causes of conflict in the workplace is communication, or, more commonly, miscommunication. Disputes will often arise over misunderstandings and misinterpretations of communication or a complete lack of communication from one side. Communication plays a prominent role in the culture and health of a work environment, and failing to spend adequate time on it can result in conflict.  
  • Emotions: Work can be stressful, frustrating, or any other emotion imaginable. Emotions are a part of life, and when strong emotions are experienced or received, they can cause conflict if it is not appropriately addressed. When employees are not given a place to experience or handle emotions when directed at them, it can result in conflict in the workplace.  
  • Expectations: When expectations are not clear, or they are not met, it can be a source of conflict in the workplace. Failure to establish clear expectations will typically result in expectations not being met, which can cause significant conflicts in the workplace when it is a recurring issue.  

There are other causes of workplace conflict; however, the ones listed above are common causes that can be avoided by addressing the issues before they arise or become a conflict.  

Ways to Avoid or Address Conflict: 

As stated above, conflict is a part of life and cannot be avoided. Yet there are steps that a workplace can take and encourage their employees to take that can help minimize and limit conflict to only that which is necessary or unavoidable. 

Identifying a common cause for conflict in a specific workplace can help an employer tailor the steps to address the most pressing need first. But moving through all the suggestions should help create a healthy workplace for conflict. The suggestions to reduce or avoid conflict include:

  • Communicate: Communication is one of the most common reasons for workplace conflict. It is also the first idea that many experts would present when it comes to addressing conflict in the workplace. An organization should examine its channels of communication and identify potential or actual issues within those channels. If employees are not meeting expectations, there may be a lapse in communicating expectations to them. If two people are consistently in conflict, it may be helpful to add a step in communication between them. Identifying and addressing causes for concern in communication can help avoid and reduce conflict.  
  • Receive Complaints: Another aspect of communication that can lead to issues is how employees lodge a complaint with the workplace. In many companies, the complaint process is nonexistent or intimidating because it involves speaking with a supervisor. Creating a complaint process that is clearly laid out with expectations of how the person receiving the complaint should act can help create a complaint process that employees will feel safe using to address issues that could become conflicts.  
  • Respond Positively: Conflict can arise when a workplace has a negative culture or atmosphere. If everyone is overwhelmed, it can lead to conflict in how people talk to each other. Suppose multiple people respond and act positively toward their coworkers. In that case, it can help make a difference in the culture as a whole. If the company culture is positive, people will start to react positively, even when demanding projects are going on.  
  • Avoid Manipulation: Some people can accomplish what they want by using emotional manipulation. This usually includes reacting with emotions like fear or distress when they are being corrected or addressed. Falling into this trap can often leave employees feeling used it can lead to further conflict. When faced with such tactics, it is best to give the person space to calm down and plan to address the situation later. By giving the person the space to cool off, the manipulative factor that comes from their actions is diffused, and the issue can be addressed more evenly.  
  • Addressing Conflicts: While the goals laid out here are designed to avoid conflict, it is essential to remember that conflict needs to be addressed when it does come up. Some people will naturally attempt to avoid the conflict until it is impossible, which usually worsens the dispute and creates more problems. Laying out a clear plan for complaints can also include a plan to quickly identify and address conflict when it does arise, making it easier to move on from the conflict quickly.
  • Choose Battles: Not every conflict will need to be addressed with the same vigor as the next. Identifying minor conflicts that have the knack for morphing into large conflicts between coworkers and others can be important for deciding when to address issues and when to let the parties address them on their own.

  • Team Building: Team building activities provide an opportunity for team members to get to know each other better and build trust. When people know and trust each other, they are less likely to misunderstand intentions or jump to conclusions that could lead to conflict. These activities can help enhance employee engagement and improve communication in a professional environment.

    Team unity is an essential component in the process of identifying potential sources of conflict before they become serious issues. For example, if a group activity reveals that some team members have different working styles or expectations, this can be addressed to prevent future conflicts.

Each workplace will have issues that can cause conflict, and each workplace needs to create a plan that works with its specific goals and issues in mind. Finding what works for the specific situation is the best thing a workplace can do to encourage healthy relationships and create productivity.  

The Benefit of Conflict: 

As this article has alluded to, there are instances where conflict can be beneficial to a workplace. Occasionally, conflict can help address a problem that a team or entire workplace was having and help them move forward as a better functioning team. 

Conflict can also drive competition and encourage creative thinking. While unnecessary conflict can stifle productivity, a conflict that helps encourage employees can increase productivity and help a team come up with innovative solutions that would not have come about otherwise. 

Finding productive conflict is complex, and employees may not always feel comfortable with the conflict. But when it happens, it can be magical for the workplace and spur others toward creative and productive work. 

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