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Quick Guide: Dealing with employee conflicts

When you put a large collection of personalities in one office, the reality is that at some time or another, conflicts will arise. How you handle these situations can be the difference between a harmonious office environment and something that closer reflects an active war zone.
 
Conflicts are not always bad things, as they can feed business improvements and innovations - however when emotions dominate the facts, or the entire office gets involved, the effect on productivity can be dramatic.
 
In this quick guide we’re going to cover how you can get to the root of issues whilst remaining objective, alongside the steps you can take to quickly resolve employee conflicts.
 
 
 
Self Sufficiency
 
Most workplace conflicts originate when the goals and needs of individuals are out of sync. Whether that’s two sales professionals competing over a client, FinTech professionals clashing over the direction a project should take, or simply a production team that’s pulling in different directions.
 
As a senior business professional remember that your responsibilities do not extend to parenting staff members and fixing every little issue that arises. Your company hired these people because they were deemed mature enough to work within your business's culture, so allowing for a certain level of self-sufficiency is vital.
 
If you don’t provide employees with the opportunity to reach their own resolutions first, you risk feeding the problem and adding to the ensuing drama, only expanding its effect across the business. Even worse, if you’re perceived to be taking sides or showing favoritism to one party you can risk turning others in the company against you - damaging your own position of respect and trust.
 
At this stage a lighter-touch management technique can be applied; monitoring the conflict, encouraging communication between parties involved and otherwise remaining somewhat ‘hands off’. Should you determine the situations severity as unacceptable, that’s when it’s time to step in before it develops.
 
 
 
Root of the Conflict
 
Before you start looking for a peaceful resolution you first need to determine the root cause of the problem; the who, what, where, when and why of the issue.  You also need to find a way to speak with each party factually, beyond the emotions entwined within the scenario. It’s near impossible to reach a positive outcome whilst people are raising their voices and posturing using aggressive body language.
 
It’s also important that you keep your own personal feelings outside of the conflict. It may be a case that you have a friendship with one of the instigators, and a disliking for the other party - you must remain objective otherwise those emotions could impact your resolution approach.
 
In the same vein, don’t allow what you may hear through office gossip or from observers, to impact your view on the situation. Stick to the facts, that's it. Until you know everything that's happened, your focus should be on managing a civil open communication that encourages a positive outcome.
 
 
 
The ‘Interest-Based Relational Approach’
 
“The ability to see the situation as the other side sees it, as difficult as it may be, is one of the most important skills a negotiator can possess.”
- Roger Fisher, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In
 
 
Developed by bestseller writers Roger Fisher and William Ury, the interest-based relational approach dictates that conflicts can be resolved only when separating people and their emotions from the issue at hand. As manager your role is not simply to fix the problem, but also to ensure an end result in-which each party feels respected and understood.
 
They suggest that the manager and involved individuals follow six steps;
 
  1. Ensure relationships are priority.
  2. Pull the problem away from the person.
  3. Listen to each person’s point of view.
  4. Observe, absorb, respond second.
  5. Utilize observable facts.
  6. Explore all options to resolution.
 
When the dust has settled you want to ensure your team still function effectively without underlying negatively or dislike between employees. For this to happen its vital relationships be preserved through the conflict resolution process - relating to points 1 & 2. Turning the argument into a battle of facts instead of allowing personalities to be involved, enables you to professionally debate the situation without damaging personal relationships between staff members.
 
Once this ceasefire has been established, acting as an impartial mediator speak to each party and carefully take on-board their views and concerns. Allow them to lead the output of information, taking advantage of silence in conversation to elicit more insights from each individual [1]. Keep the conversation on point with accurate, factual questions when appropriate and avoid any derogatory comments about the other people involved. Listen to what’s said, observe how it’s presented and body language signals, absorb what you learn and respond fairly.
 
 
 
Finding a Resolution
 
Now is the time to bring both parties together to reach a new equilibrium. Create a space for open communication and collaboration between you and individuals involved, and encourage each person to express their view on the conflict. Set behavior expectations beforehand in line with the approach above; that asks everyone to listen carefully, to be empathetic, to be open minded and keep personal feelings away from the real problems.
 
In this environment you’ll be able to set out the facts clearly, for a fair and balanced discussion. Best case scenario the next steps will then become obvious and a suitable resolution can be quickly agreed. On the other hand an executive call may need to be made, or one party may need to be flexible and step down - it could even result in major changes being required in the business to create an effective win:win outcome. Either way, an outcome can be reached when everyone involved is debating not fighting.
 
What’s important during this final process is that each employee feels like they have their voice heard, their comments taken onboard and their solutions considered satisfactorily.  This way whether the resolution is in their favor or not, they can respect the process taken to reach the final decision.
 
 
 
If that doesn’t work?
 
So you’ve given it your best, dedicated as much time to finding a resolution as you can, spoken thoroughly with each employee and a resolution still can’t be reached - what then?
 
Each conflict will of-course be unique, so these processes may not always achieve a final resolution for your team. At this point you may need to raise the issue higher, either to more senior business members or a suitable HR executive. This should only be done once all other options have been exhausted, but also not shied away from as a problem left festering can ruin the whole offices dynamic and morale.
 
The outcome from this point will vary between businesses, but normally there will be set processes in place for appropriate conduct as set out with an employee guidebook, that will determine the next steps. However if you follow the steps outlined above, you should never need to reach this point.
 
 
 
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References
 
[1] http://www.tdjakes.com/posts/the-power-of-silence-in-conversation