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5 Ways to Reduce Workplace Conflict

Conflict is almost inevitable in the workplace. It harms productivity, organizational effectiveness and morale. Here are 5 steps you can take to manage workplace conflict better and minimize the damage it causes.

Disputes between employees harm productivity, organizational effectiveness and morale. You may not be able to eliminate conflict, but you can manage it better and minimize the damage it causes. Here’s how: 

Where there’s a workplace, there’s conflict. Very rarely do you find one without the other.

In an international study on workplace conflict, an overwhelming majority of workers at all levels—a staggering 85 percent to be exact — reported that they experienced conflict at work to some degree. Even more troubling was the fact that almost one in three (29%) reported that they deal with conflict “always” or “frequently.” In the United States that figure was even higher at 36 percent.

While those workplace disputes exact an enormous emotional toll (demotivation, anger, frustration, etc.) on workers and managers, it also reduces productivity, decreases organizational effectiveness and hurts morale.

The scope of the problem can be found in the results of this large-scale study conducted by CPP. CPP surveyed 5,000 full-time employees in nine countries around Europe and the Americas in 2008.

In the U.S. alone, the survey found:

  • U.S. workers spend 2.8 hours a week dealing with conflict.
  • Conflict costs businesses two-and-a-half weeks of productivity for every employee, every year.
  • Lost productivity adds up to $359 billion annually for time workers spend in conflict, instead of collaboration.
  • Conflict time adds up to 385 million working days spent in lost productivity every year.

So, what causes all this conflict? According to the study, the three leading factors are: personality clashes and warring egos (49 percent); stress (34 percent); and heavy workloads (33 percent). But also on the list are poor leadership and lack of clarity about roles and accountability, among other factors.

Workplace conflict can make employees miserable, which leads to more workers searching for other jobs and higher turnover. In the extreme, it can lead some to transform into “toxic workers” whose behavior disrupts entire teams and drags others down with them, undermining morale and productivity to a degree that far exceeds their numbers.

A Harvard Business School study, for example, found that hiring a “toxic worker” costs your company more than twice as much as hiring a “superstar” –– someone whose productivity is in the top 1 percent. The study examined a large dataset of almost 60,000 employees across 11 global companies, and concluded that either avoiding hiring or quickly firing a “toxic worker” saves more than $12,500, while hiring a “superstar” adds about $5,300 to the company’s bottom line.

Mitigating Workplace Disputes

It’s clear that reducing conflict can lead to happier and more productive employees and a healthier bottom line, so how do you ensure that happens? Here are five ways to help minimize workplace disputes so employees spend more time collaborating and a lot less time resolving conflicts.

Pay attention to company culture. It starts at the top. How company leaders behave and deal with other people usually sets the tone for the whole organization. And it can create a company culture that actually encourages conflict in subtle or overt ways. There are still managers who believe that pitting employees against each other is the best way to improve results. Creating a culture of collaboration will boost morale and help avoid the high cost of workplace conflict. Start by clearly defining acceptable and expected behaviors, such as respect for diversity. Be willing to invest the time, energy and resources needed to have open and frank discussions about your company culture and a commitment to make necessary changes.

Hire wisely. As the “toxic worker” example shows, the best way to reduce workplace conflict — and boost productivity in the process –– is to hire smarter. Hiring employees who are similar might result in reduced conflict but it will almost certainly cause other problems for your organization, such as groupthink and a lack of diversity. Employees don’t need to be the same. They need to be able to work together collaboratively. So, ask specific questions during job interviews probing how candidates handle conflict in the workplace. Why did they leave previous jobs? How did they get along with co-workers? How did they get along with managers? Look for red flags, especially any pattern that suggests problems were always someone else’s fault.

Get on board with training. Having conflict resolution as part of a leadership development program or formal external course for employees is another investment that adds value to your organization. In the CPP study, 95 percent of people who received training in conflict resolution through those kinds of programs reported it helped them in some way. A little more than a quarter (27 percent) said it made them more comfortable and confident in managing disputes and 58 percent reported they now look for win-win outcomes when dealing with conflict.

Communicate clearly. Remember, lack of clarity in roles and accountability ranked high on the list of factors contributing to workplace conflict in the CPP study. Once again, it starts at the top. The goals and priorities of the organization should be clearly defined and communicated to all employees. Instead of employees only seeing as far as their own unit, they all should have a shared understanding of the big picture as well as have clearly defined roles and accountabilities.

Avoid even the appearance of favoritism. Any perceived unequal or unfair treatment is a potential spark for workplace conflict. Water cooler whispers that someone got a benefit only because they were the boss’s favorite can quickly crater employee morale. If two employees want the same week off for vacation, there shouldn’t be any question about why the worker who got it was chosen. Workforce management software, such as ScheduleSource’s TeamWork, can make a big difference here. First, it allows employees to have a hand in scheduling, giving them both more flexibility and responsibility. And letting them swap or trade shifts based on clearly defined business rules encourages collaboration and reduces potential conflicts.

Perhaps workplaces will always have conflicts as long as they’re staffed by human beings. But minimizing both the causes of conflict and its harm can ease workplace stress and tension and create a more collaborative and fulfilling environment for all.