Managing employees | Are you approaching conflict wrong?

It’s an aspect of the job most would hope to avoid, but when you’re in charge of a team, managing conflict comes with the territory.

With a mixture of personalities forced to work in close proximity day in day out, there are bound to be times when individuals don’t see eye to eye. Personality clashes, set ideas about how things should be done and competing goals are common catalysts for conflict, as is employees shirking ownership for tasks, acting in self-interest or taking credit for other people’s work.

When it comes to managing conflict, there are some common mistakes managers make. The following are three general rules that employers and managers should keep in mind when it comes to maintaining harmony in their workplace.

1. Focus on the problem, not the personalities

When people butt heads at work, managers will tend to focus on the attitudes and behaviours of the individuals involved and how each person can alter their approach in order to defuse tensions. However, in reality, people are just the part of the story that’s easiest to see, and conflict between employees may be a sign that there are underlying issues which require attention.

For example, a divide within a team might, on the face of it, appear to be based on resentment that some aren’t pulling their weight, but may actually be a symptom of unclear job roles. Similarly, frustrations over different ways of doing things and arguments over errors being made may be the result of inadequate training, while irritation over unequal treatment may be borne out of managers’ failure to apply policies fairly and consistently.

It’s important to always look beyond surface-level issues and try to identify the root cause, or it’s likely that conflict will persist. By chalking it up to personalities or ‘different ways of doing things’, you might be neglecting fundamental issues and missing out on valuable opportunities to fix them.  

2. Be proactive, not reactive

Managers are often guilty of taking a firefighting approach to conflict, waiting for things to come to a head or an employee to make a formal complaint before intervening. However, this is a risky approach to take, as although you may fear opening a can of worms, not taking an active stance may mean less faith in managers’ abilities, complicated grievances, losing a member of your team, and even Employment Tribunal claims.

Instead, try:

  • Tuning in to team dynamics. Early warning signs that conflict might be brewing include snappy or defensive comments, dysfunctional meetings and cliques forming.
  • Striking while the iron’s hot. If you do spot subtle signs of conflict emerging, the sooner you act, the more likely it is that you will be able to resolve the situation informally without having to resorting to formal mediation. Speak to each individual separately to explore the issue, identify the root cause of their frustrations, and find out how they wish to move forward. You will then be in a position to facilitate a discussion between the parties to help clear the air and reach common ground. The focus should be on finding solutions rather than apportioning blame – although if you suspect that bullying or harassment may be occurring, you may need to investigate further.
  • Minimising the risk of conflict through regular communication. Holding regular 1:1s with employees can be an effective way to nip conflict in the bud before it takes hold. Checking in and allowing them the opportunity to talk through any problems or concerns will, in most cases, prevent minor frustrations from manifesting into real issues. Alternatively, anonymous employee feedback through an annual or biannual survey may elicit more truthful responses and bring to light sources of conflict you may be unaware of.

Tackling conflict head-on will spare a lot of time and stress in the long run.

Expert tip: If managers have a tendency to let conflict escalate rather than act on it, it’s important to ask why. Are they unsure how to approach difficult situations? Have previous attempts at conflict resolution been unsuccessful? Are they not around enough to spot warning signs? Discovering what’s impeding managers’ abilities to prevent and resolve conflict is key to tackling situations better in future.

3. Drill down on personality and goals in the recruitment stage

Ever hired someone only to realise that their personality just doesn’t mesh with the people they need to interact with on a daily basis? Perhaps they’re used to doing things a certain way and refusing to budge, don’t work well under pressure, or aren’t great communicators. Maybe they don’t like being told what to do, have a tendency to leave things to the last minute, or dominate conversations.

All of these things are potential sources of conflict, and even if certain traits aren’t inherently negative, if they don’t align with your ethos or the personalities of your existing team, prepare for friction. For example, hiring somebody with ambitious plans and their sights set on progression may feel like a threat to a long-serving member of your team. Likewise, a candidate who prefers to work independently might sound like the dream to some but is likely to cause problems if they will be expected to take instruction or work collaboratively as part of their role.

If you find that you’re often blindsided by who people really are once they ease into the job, try incorporating personality-based questions into the interview process. These are designed to tease out candidates’ soft skills, including attitudes to teamwork, flexibility, creativity and goals, and will help you to identify potential hires who will fit into your culture.

Example questions to ask include:

Would you put your own work on hold to help a member of your team who was struggling?
When did you last experience anger? What happened?
What are you passionate about?
Tell me about a time when you had to fill in for someone.
Tell me about a particularly stressful situation at work and how you overcame it.
In your opinion, is respect to be given or earned?
You’ve put forward an idea that you believe will be effective, but your manager disagrees. How do you proceed?
You’ve asked somebody from another team to complete a piece of work by a deadline; they haven’t delivered. How do you approach the situation?

There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer to these questions; your preferred response will depend on the role you’re recruiting for, your workplace culture and your way of doing things. However, probing into these areas will help to uncover a candidate’s work ethic, their motivators and whether or not they will gel with your existing team, and are therefore your first line of defence when it comes to reducing the risk of conflict later on. (Of course, you should be wary of candidates whose answers appear overly rehearsed or cliché – chances are they will prove to be the opposite!)

Need on-site support with mediation?

At Ellis Whittam, our specialist HR Consultancy team can provide mediation or facilitation services to help two or more individuals or groups to reach a solution that is acceptable to everyone. We can assist the parties in understanding the issues and help them to clarify the options for resolving their differences or dispute, including developing an appropriate action plan for the parties to follow.

Final thoughts

Conflict is an inevitable part of human life and, if used wisely, can actually bring about constructive change. However, left unmanaged, conflict has the potential to bring down the morale of an entire department, impede productivity, and push people out. It’s therefore important that managers can recognise the difference between healthy disagreement and potentially destructive conflict, and develop tools to prevent and manage the latter.

Complicated employee issue? Lean on the experts

At Ellis Whittam, we enable employers to overcome a full spectrum of employee relations issues, from managing employee disputes to sickness absence, performance and complicated disciplinaries. Our unlimited, fixed-fee service gives you access to dedicated support from a legally-qualified Employment Law Adviser for practical, commercially-minded advice at any time, as well as bespoke contracts, handbooks and policies to keep you on the right track.

To discover how our external support can relieve your people pressures and reduce legal risk, call 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.