Any business will have employees who don’t get along from time to time. Whether it’s because of differences in their personalities, lifestyles, opinions or some other factor, sometimes employees just don’t mesh.
And when there’s discord in the workplace, it affects everybody.
The resulting tension not only makes the office environment uncomfortable – it can also negatively impact your business’s productivity.
At the same time, the old saying that iron sharpens iron represents the upside of the situation. Handled constructively, employee conflict can lead to healthy competition, process improvements, innovation and enhanced creativity.
Here are some tips to help you tactfully turn conflict into consensus between feuding employees.
Step 1. Understand the nature of the conflict
It’s often tempting to make assumptions about conflict, especially if rumors are circulating. But don’t assume anything. Instead, figure out what’s fueling the disagreement between your employees.
First and foremost, make sure you’re not dealing with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issue, such as workplace harassment or discrimination. Become familiar with your company’s harassment prevention polices and guidelines, if you aren’t already. And if you don’t have these types of policies currently in place, make that a priority.
Remember, with harassment, it’s not the intent of the behavior but how the behavior is perceived.
Once you’ve ruled out any EEOC issues, what are some other underlying circumstances that may be causing or worsening the conflict? Are there clashing work styles at play? Is it a high-stress environment? Is a new project creating tight deadlines? What about a difficult client? Are some employees spreading gossip or bullying coworkers?
There may be a variety of factors causing hostility among your employees. Getting an initial read on what’s at the heart of the matter is essential to successfully resolving the issue and avoiding future conflict.
Step 2. Encourage employees to work it out themselves
As a business leader, you want your employees to be as self-sufficient as possible. After all, you’re their supervisor or manager – not their mother.
Keep in mind that reacting to every worker complaint may actually heighten the drama and make the situation worse. Doing so could even cause some employees to think you’re playing favorites.
That doesn’t mean that encouraging your team to manage issues on their own won’t require a little facilitating on your part, especially if you have employees who tend to avoid confrontation.
Provide guidance or talking points, if needed, to help each employee approach the other person in a positive manner. Don’t set the expectation that you’ll fix the problem for them. You can facilitate the discussion, but that’s where you should draw the line.
Always use your best judgment when it comes to addressing employee complaints. Consider taking a structured approach like this one:
- Determine whether the situation is emotionally charged and define the severity of the conflict.
- Once you’ve assessed the issue, if appropriate, talk to each employee individually to let them know you’re aware of the situation.
- Then, encourage open communication and resolution among the employees involved. Ask them if they feel comfortable going to the other employee and handling it one-on-one.
When people work together, disagreements will occasionally happen. That’s a given. But disrespect is another story.
Employees who don’t get along should still treat each other with respect and make an effort to listen to the other person’s side. Using words such as “I feel” (instead of “you did”) can also help prevent the conversation from becoming defensive.
Conflict resolution doesn’t necessarily have to end in agreement. Sometimes, it’s best to agree to disagree, respectfully. When that happens, employees should acknowledge there is a difference of opinion or approach, and come up with a solution together on how to move forward.
Keep the focus on behavior and problems rather than people.
Step 3. Nip it in the bud quickly
Unfortunately, some situations won’t work themselves out on their own and you’ll be forced to step in. If ignored, employee disputes can infect the entire workplace and eventually taint the reputation of your company. Other employees may find themselves unintentionally drawn into the conflict. This “employee sideshow” can further derail productivity.
Get to the root of the problem and stop the landslide before it starts. Make sure the message is clear that all employees, regardless of position and tenure, will be held accountable for their behavior. Let them know that if established standards aren’t met, it could lead to disciplinary action.
Step 4. Listen to both sides
When it’s time to get involved, start by dismissing any gossip that may be buzzing around the office, and don’t buy into whatever you hear.
Instead, deal with the two individuals or groups of people who are directly involved in the incident and worry about other staff members later. Most employees want to feel listened to or acknowledged, so ask each person responsible to explain their side of the story.
Before deciding whether to meet with the disagreeing parties together or separately, try to evaluate the degree of hostility between them. Remember, you’re there to discuss facts, not emotions.
If you determine that speaking to the employees together might work best, provide each with uninterrupted time to give their (fact-based) side of the story. Once all employees have had this opportunity, ask each of them to offer ideas on how the situation could be resolved and how all parties could move forward. This is basically a mediated version of step two.
Whatever you do, don’t take sides. This will only fan the flames and make matters worse. As a business leader, you need to be as objective as possible.
For conflict resolution to be successful, it’s important that your company train supervisors and managers to coach employees in this area. Poorly trained managers can make the situation worse, which can lead to low morale, disengaged employees and even increased turnover.
Step 5. Determine the real issue, together
Often, the actual cause of an employee argument is clouded by emotions. By the time the issue is brought to a manager’s attention, the squabbling employees may already be angry and defensive. That’s why it’s important to slow things down and listen.
To get beyond this emotional wall to the truth of things, encourage each employee to articulate the issue in a calm way. Treating emotional symptoms alone only puts a temporary Band-Aid over the issue. Get to the crux of the matter, so you can find a permanent solution that won’t be as susceptible to future flare-ups.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing this yourself, or you don’t think you can be impartial, consider working with an experienced HR professional to handle the situation.
Step 6. Consult your employee handbook
Reviewing pertinent company policies in your employee handbook may shed light on the best approach to solving the problem. Sticking to the common ground rules that every employee is expected to follow at all times can be a practical way to remain objective.
Some examples of policies you should include in your employee handbook, if they aren’t already, are guidelines for appropriate conduct and conflict resolution. Conflict based on a protected class falls into the category of harassment or discrimination, as referenced under step one.
So, your handbook should contain these policies, as well as a policy against harassment/discrimination and instructions on how to file a complaint.
To help ensure you reach a fair resolution, make sure your decision is aligned with company policy. No employee should be above workplace rules. Letting an employee slide when they’ve clearly gone against the rules will weaken your authority and cause resentment in the ranks.
Step 7. Find a solution
Employees don’t have to be best friends; they just need to get the job done. And don’t forget – there’s good and bad conflict. Help employees learn the difference.
Don’t completely rule out organizational changes, either.
Sometimes, if it comes down to it, you can improve employee focus and the workplace dynamic by reorganizing teams. It may be helpful to give the employees involved time to “cool off” before they work together again.
You have a business to run, and if the conflict continues, it could seriously affect productivity and performance. Recognize when it’s time to re-evaluate your staff. One antagonistic employee can wreak havoc on the rest.
Step 8. Write it up
Whether employees like it or not, it’s important that you document all workplace incidents. Recording these events will help you monitor behavior over time and notice repeat offenders that may be negatively impacting your office.
By handling and documenting incidents properly, you can also protect your business should a disgruntled employee try to take you to court. It’s essential that you write down factual information from each employee-related incident. Be sure to include the counseling or written memorandum concerning the employees’ conduct in their HR file.
Include the who, what, when, where and how, as well as the resolution that all parties agreed on and committed to uphold.
Step 9. Teach them how to communicate
For some troubled employees, talking out a situation isn’t enough. Typically, people who have these types of problems likely have communication issues already. If there’s a lot of discord among your staff, it’s probably time to teach them some basic communication and problem-solving techniques.
Personality assessments and training, such as the DiSC® profile, may help your employees communicate more effectively as a team. These courses teach employees how to articulate their thoughts and emotions in a nonthreatening way. The techniques they learn can help them diffuse conflicts before they blow up.
Step 10. Lead by example
Set the standard for employees who don’t get along – and employees in general.
Building a culture of engaged employees, who respect each other and work well together, is a top-down proposition. By speaking to your employees in an honest and respectful manner, you create an environment that fosters integrity and communication. When you’re open and honest, employees are more likely to follow suit.
So much of your company culture is based on how everyone interacts with one another. Leading by example becomes almost automatic when you simply reinforce and uphold your company’s values, policies and guidelines in an objective way.
You’ll build trust company-wide by not expecting anything from your employees that you don’t require of yourself.