When you get a group of people together day after day, conflict is inevitable. The employees you so carefully screened during hiring interviews aren't immune, either. They might have had the perfect answers to behavioral questions such as, “How do you handle conflict?” Unfortunately, polished interview responses don’t guarantee a harmonious workplace.
Workplace conflict can occur in a variety of ways: between two employees, among entire teams or between supervisors and the team members they manage. As difficult as the issue might seem in the moment, resolving team conflict is possible. My company, Patriot Software, provides tools to help day-to-day business operations run more smoothly. In the course of that work, we've learned much about how small businesses, in particular, can be affected by team conflict.
1. Embrace conflict.
When conflict arises, don’t avoid it or pretend nothing has happened. As time goes on, tension will build -- and the conflict only will get worse. Deal with these uncomfortable issues as soon as possible, before problems and bad feelings become embedded in everyday work.
If you notice a conflict between employees, encourage them to find a way to work it out. If conflict develops between two teams, it's a good time to improve interdepartmental communication. If you have a conflict with one of your employee, address it head on and in private.
2. Talk together.
Set up a time and place so you can talk for an extended span without outside interruptions.
When you do meet, each person should have adequate time to say what he or she believes the other party needs to hear. Don't let any individual monopolize the conversation or control the topic. Each person should talk about the disagreements and how he or she feels about the situation.
Remember, this is not the time to attack or assign blame. Focus on the problem, not your opinion of the other person’s character.
3. Listen carefully.
It's essential to give your complete attention to the person who is talking. Do not interrupt the other person.
Make sure you're getting the message he or she intends to send. Rephrase and repeat back what you've heard to confirm understanding. You might say something along the lines of, “Let me make sure I understand. You’re upset about _____ because _____.”
Ask clarifying questions if needed. You can request that the other person repeat a central idea or reword his or her frustrations in a way that makes sense to you.
Listening always should be about gaining understanding. Don’t let yourself become reactionary to the other person's words.
4. Find agreement.
Your conversation primarily will focus on the disagreements, but resolution is possible only when you find points of agreement. You should emerge from the experience with some positives instead of all negatives.
Shed light on commonalities. Share examples or instances in which you agree with the other person or can see another point of view. For example, if you disagree on new sales tactics, you might share what you liked about the other person’s idea or the motivation to work harder for the team.
Looking for agreement demonstrates your willingness to seek out common ground and build a relationship around those trust elements.
5. Provide guidance.
If you're in a leadership position, there are times you may need to mediate work conflict. Don’t take sides, ever. Realize you are there simply to help your employees work out their problems.
You might need to guide the conversation. And if hurt feelings run high, it's likely you'll need to redirect the topic so your employees return to the real problem. If you're in a position to give advice on next steps, highlight the positive aspects of the process and suggest related topics or actions they can work through after the meeting.
6. Be quick to forgive.
Every conflict needs a clear resolution that acknowledges hurt feelings and finds a solution that begins to mend them.
Apologize. Tell the other person you're truly sorry for any ill words or actions -- and mean it. You'll also need to forgive the other person. Agreeing solely for the sake of appearances can lead to grudges that deepen over time, undoing any progress you've made together.