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Conflict in the Workplace: How to Prevent It

Conflict in the workplace

Overview

Conflict in the Workplace: How to Prevent It

Have you ever experienced conflict in the workplace?

This is just like asking most Americans if they’ve ridden in a minivan, eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or watched a fireworks display on Independence Day.

Conflict is a given. It’s part of interacting with others. Eventually, we will interact with people with different ideas, different modes of operation, and different personality types. Even when you work with healthy people in workplaces with clear communication and procedures, you’ll still find room for disagreement and offense. Throw a person with toxic behaviors or an absentee leader in the mix, and you’ve created the perfect environment for conflict to thrive.

Why should we work to prevent conflict? What causes conflict in the first place? What actions can you take to prevent conflict?

Prevention Versus Damage Control

Whether you’re a leader in the workplace, a business owner, or an entry-level employee, conflict will always cost you something. You can either choose to invest in the front end or the back end. You can either actively work to prevent conflict or deal with damage control because you didn’t stop it.

The costs of conflict in the workplace are staggering. 10% of employees reported missing project deadlines due to conflict. Most managers spend 20-40% of their time doing nothing but resolving conflict at work. Employees in United States companies spend approximately 2.8 hours each week handling conflict.

This amounts to $359 billion in paid hours filled with conflict instead of positive productivity. Lastly, in 2021, there were 61,331 workplace discrimination charges in the US, resulting in more than $34 million in damages in federal court. This amount does not include hundreds of millions in damages granted by state and district courts.

Conflict in the workplace tips

Obviously, damage control is expensive. On the flip side, prevention isn’t necessarily free. Some employers opt to pay for training, employee engagement initiatives, and team-building workshops. Is prevention really worth the effort?

Statistics seem to indicate prevention pays. Customer retention rates are 18% higher when employees are highly engaged. While 60% of employees in one study never received basic conflict management or resolution training, of those who did, 95% stated the training helped them navigate workplace conflict positively and seek beneficial outcomes. Finally, organizations with a healthy culture report a turnover rate of just 13.9 percent compared to 48.4 percent at companies with a poor culture.

If you’re a job seeker, building and honing your conflict prevention skills may help you land a great job and avoid future workplace problems.

Common Causes of Conflict in the Workplace

What actually causes conflict in the workplace? There are many potential causes, but employers name the following as repeat offenders:

  • Miscommunication or lack of communication
  • Lack of timeliness
  • Personality differences
  • Behaviors regarded as irritating
  • Unmet workplace needs
  • Perceived inequity
  • Unclear work roles
  • Differences in opinions, goals, and processes
  • Competing job duties
  • Economic circumstances (i.e., reduction in workforce)
  • Poor management
  • Absentee leaders
  • Differences in work methods and work styles

Some conflicts arise due to personal differences and individual preferences and expectations. These conflicts are not difficult to resolve if both parties are mission-minded, willing to change and grow, and able to acknowledge their part of the problem. However, when one party is not interested in changing, growing, or meeting halfway, conflict flourishes.

In other cases, conflicts arise due to a lack of clarity or workplace or operational differences. Again, even though these aren’t necessarily personal issues, they can still cause conflict and be difficult to resolve unless all parties involved are open, willing, and motivated to move forward.

How to Prevent Conflict in the Workplace

Some people try to prevent conflict by avoiding it or ignoring it.

This tactic is actually the worst thing you can do. The “ostrich syndrome” (sticking your head in the sand) doesn’t prevent or resolve conflict in any way. In fact, ignoring the problem or avoiding discussing the issue will most likely allow it to grow and spread. So how can you really prevent conflict in the workplace?

Conflict at work

Own Your Part

The best and most important question you can ask yourself to prevent and resolve conflict is: “What’s my part in this problem?”

By seeking to realistically and honestly identify your contribution to problems and conflicts, you will be more likely to handle things responsibly. You’ll be less likely to blame others, build resentment, or fall into self-pity. You’ll also model workplace responsibility for others.

Avoid Ostrich Syndrome

If you want to take an easy first step to prevent conflict, don’t stick your head in the sand. Try to maintain awareness of workplace tension, morale, and culture. If you identify problems, assertively address them.

Model Strong Leadership

Whether you’re in a management role or not, model strong leadership skills. Assertively address conflict as soon as it arises, practice good anger management skills regularly, and communicate clearly.

Communicate Competently

If you maintain open, clear, channel-rich communication with others, you’ll prevent many incidences of conflict. In addition to clarity, seek to respond to others in a timely manner. Nothing builds frustration more quickly than a lack of response.

Be Healthy

Take care of yourself. What does that have to do with work? Everything. 

If you’re practicing good self-care methods, including getting adequate sleep and eating a healthy diet, you can perform well physically, mentally, and emotionally. If you’re dealing with emotional distress in your personal life, seek counseling or therapy services, and don’t neglect to take advantage of your company’s Employee Assistance Program or other benefits.

When you’re healthy and practice self-care, you’re less likely to initiate or feed into conflict.

THINK

Be mindful of what you say and how you say it. Rely on the acronym THINK to determine whether or not to respond. Are your words thoughtful, honest, important, necessary, or kind? If it’s not, revise your statement, or don’t say it at all. Another option is to vent to a mentor or close friend.

Ultimately, mindfully responding will prevent conflict, while mindlessly reacting will fuel it.

Applying these methods and tips will help you become a peacemaker and problem-solver in your workplace. And who knows? Maybe others will observe your efforts to prevent conflict in the workplace and follow suit. If you want other suggestions about creating a healthy, harmonious workplace, check out Lensa Insights.

Conflict in the workplace insights
Bethany Wallace
Bethany Wallace
Bethany Wallace partners with mission-minded organizations to build better workplaces through soft skills solutions. Bethany aids leaders in strengthening workplace relationships through communications consulting, training, executive coaching, keynote presentations, & career coaching. Bethany enjoys presenting research at conferences and contributes regularly to major publications & recognized podcasts, including Glassdoor, College Recruiter, Zip Recruiter, Jobscan, FlexJobs, the New York Daily News, BusinessTech, Human Resources Online, Life After Teaching, Love Your Story, The Conversation Guy (10 Minute Mindset), Everyday People Podcast, The Success Chronicles, and more.

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