Sheila Flavell: How to deal with conflict in the workplace

By Sheila Flavell, COO of FDM Group,
While conflict in the workplace is inevitable, Sheila Flavell, COO of FDM Group, says it is crucial to approach it with professionalism and maturity

Almost half a million people resign because of workplace conflict each year in the UK, costing employers a staggering £28.5 billion (US$35.5bn) annually, a study conducted by workplace specialist ACAS has found. 

These conflicts can lead to stress and anxiety among staff which have a negative impact on productivity. To address this pervasive problem, it is essential for organisations and individuals to understand the types of conflicts that can arise and implement effective strategies to address and resolve them. 

So, what insights and practical advice can be offered to help deal with conflict in the workplace?

Types of conflict

Conflicts in the workplace can manifest in various forms, but the most common types are interpersonal conflicts and conflicts of interest. 

Interpersonal conflicts occur when individuals' views, personalities, and work styles clash, hindering collaboration and problem-solving. Issues surrounding the level of support or resources, absence or absence management and promotions can also arise.

On the other hand, conflicts of interest happen when personal interests conflict with the organisation's interests, such as involvement with competitors or favouritism towards specific vendors.

Examples of conflict at work 

Task-based conflicts can occur when individuals rely on each other to complete a task, with issues like late submissions of briefs impeding progress. In such cases, improving communication and setting clear expectations can help resolve the conflict. 

Additionally, conflicts can arise from differences in working styles, where one's preference for working alone clashes with another's need for collaboration. By understanding and accommodating different working styles, individuals can find common ground and enhance cooperation.

The importance of handling conflict

The ability to handle conflict with co-workers is a crucial skill for personal and professional growth. Demonstrating professionalism and maturity in conflict resolution improves an individual's reputation within the organisation, and can potentially lead to career advancement. 

Effective conflict management can enhance communication skills and promote productivity by facilitating collaboration and preventing escalations. Resolving conflicts overall fosters a positive work environment, improving job satisfaction and teamwork. 

Moreover, it reduces stress levels and prevents negative consequences such as disciplinary action or legal disputes. By successfully navigating conflicts, individuals can experience personal growth, building resilience and confidence in handling challenging situations.

How to manage conflict in the workplace

  • Break the ice

Be proactive and request a suitable meeting time in a neutral setting to initiate a conversation. Approach the topic respectfully and non-confrontationally, demonstrating integrity and character to build a civil working relationship.

Practise active listening without interrupting the other person. Let them express their opinions, gaining insights you may have missed. After they finish, inquire if there is anything else they would like to add. This shows attentiveness and gives them an opportunity to expand on their thoughts.

Rephrase and repeat what the other person has said and seek clarification by asking questions if needed. It is not necessary to reach an agreement or become friends; agreeing to disagree is acceptable, but maintaining professionalism is essential.

  • Focus on the problem, not the person

Don’t take conflicts and work-related criticisms personally. Focus on the problem instead of the person. Consider factors like poor communication, unequal work delegation, language barriers, and hierarchical struggles that maybe aggravating the issue. Identifying these factors allows you to propose solutions, such as dividing tasks and using workflow management tools for accountability.

Be mindful not to use accusatory language when trying to address a conflict. For example – if a colleague takes credit for your work consider saying, ‘I felt very hurt when you took full credit for the presentation when we’d both worked equally hard on it.’ 

Avoid statements like, ‘You always do this’, or ‘I can’t believe you did that’. Focusing on how someone’s actions made you feel instead of accusing them is likely to be a better approach.

  • Involve HR or your line manager

If you are unable to reach a satisfactory resolution, it is advisable to engage either your line manager or the HR department. These professionals are equipped with conflict management skills and can facilitate a productive discussion between you and your colleague. The mediator's role is to assist you in finding your own solution rather than imposing a specific one.

  • Avoid escalating through gossip

While discussing issues with others can provide valuable insights, gossiping should be avoided. It breeds negativity and creates a toxic environment, harming both individuals and the overall work atmosphere.

Gossip often exacerbates conflicts and creates an "us vs them" mentality, leading to misinformation and unwarranted resentments. In cases of conflict between an employee and a manager, it can even undermine authority and result in disciplinary action.

Instead, consider venting to someone outside of your organisation, such as a friend or family member. When seeking resolution, turn to your HR representative or line manager, as they are the appropriate channels to address conflicts at work.

  • Consider that you may be wrong

It’s important to introspect and consider our role in a conflict. Take cues from other colleagues and see if they have the same complaints. For example – are you struggling with managing your time and is it affecting the rest of the team?

Apologising for a mistake and taking actionable steps to fix it take courage and humility. It also shows a willingness to take responsibility and be accountable.

  • Try to find common ground

Identifying common goals can provide clarity on what needs to be resolved. For instance, if different working styles hinder cooperation with a team member, the shared objective would be to establish an efficient working arrangement that yields quality outcomes.

Subsequently, a solution must be reached that satisfies both parties. This might involve implementing a new working process that accommodates both working styles. However, in other cases, this could mean respectfully agreeing to disagree while ensuring mutual closure.

  • Document everything 

In the instance of a conflict steadily escalating despite attempts to resolve it, you should keep records of everything from emails, memos, chat histories if any. This is to protect yourself and build a strong case history in the extreme event of having to take the legal route.

  • Deal with conflicts in a timely manner 

In many cases, conflicts begin as minor issues which if left unaddressed can escalate into something big. For example, if you have concerns about a colleague’s patronising tone, it’s best to address it early on, instead of allowing it to fester.

In heated arguments, it’s better to take some time to calm down and think about finding a constructive resolution.

  • Stay positive

By staying optimistic and solution-focused, stress and negative emotions can be effectively managed. While it is essential to address conflicts, it's equally important not to let them consume your thoughts or spill into your personal life.

Final thoughts

Although conflicts are nearly inevitable, it is crucial to approach them with professionalism and maturity.

As more and more people return to the office post-pandemic, the onus is on companies to ensure the mental wellbeing of their employees in the workplace.

Considering most people spend at least eight hours in the office each day, the workplace needs to be a positive space where employees feel safe in order to thrive.

Sheila Flavell is COO of FDM Group, a global leader in training and recruitment


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