Jump to section
Well-managed conflict can encourage innovation and creativity in the workplace, lead to better decision making, produce better leaders, and ultimately help facilitate corporate success, Forbes reports. But if facing conflict is an integral part of how businesses grow and compete in the marketplace, why is workplace conflict often so detrimental to workers?The issue isn’t necessarily due to the competitive nature of business, or the disagreements that often occur among coworkers. Rather, problems arise when conflict becomes so toxic and stressful that it harms workers’ mental well-being.These types of conflicts, when not properly resolved, can lead to poorer mental health and workplace wellness among employees and, as a result, a host of negative outcomes such as:
- lower productivity
- failed projects
To avoid these negative outcomes, it isn’t necessary to avoid all conflict. As the Forbes article states, “Since no organization will ever be free of conflict, it is imperative for leaders to learn to manage it—to bend it into something beneficial, rather than harmful. The best leaders shape conflict into a discourse that helps drive a company forward.”Here's how workplace leaders can better understand the nature of workplace conflicts and manage them effectively.
Why workplace conflicts occur
Workplace conflicts occur often for the same reasons as all conflicts occur. We bring different sets of values, personalities, needs, and goals to the table. If these conflicts are handled with poor communication, systemic workplace issues, poor conflict management by leaders, or the perpetuation of stigmas or workplace harassment, this inevitably leads to poor outcomes.
Well-managed conflict that is respectful and accepting of differing views regardless of level of authority or seniority within a company can foster positive outcomes.According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “If an employer has mechanisms in place to resolve conflict at its early stages, employees will generally see their employer as fair in their dealings with them and will likely be more satisfied with their jobs.” SHRM also suggests that reducing the negative impacts of employee conflict can lead to more productivity, motivation, and loyalty, lower medical costs, fewer workers' compensation claims, and a drop in the cost of litigation.
Common workplace conflicts
Workplace conflicts can emerge from a rich tapestry of sources, frequently deeply rooted in the unique differences and individualities that each employee brings to the professional setting. The Management Development Institute of Missouri State University suggests there are four common categories of workplace conflict. These include:
- Resource Disputes: Conflicts related to office resources are prevalent in many workplaces. These conflicts can encompass disputes over office supplies, access to meeting spaces, or even the desire for more facetime with colleagues or superiors. Such conflicts can be common in settings where resources are limited, and if left unaddressed, they may lead to frustration and reduced productivity. Effective conflict management can help find equitable solutions and prevent these issues from escalating into more severe disputes.
- Goal Misalignment: Workplace conflicts may arise when there is misalignment with employees' or teams' goals to overarching objectives of the organization. These discrepancies can stem from different interpretations of company goals or varying priorities among employees. When there is goal misalignment, it can lead to confusion, frustration, and inefficiencies within the workplace. Effective conflict resolution in this context involves clear communication of organizational objectives, team goal-setting, and regular check-ins to ensure everyone is on the same page.
- Role Conflicts: Disagreements over roles and responsibilities are another common source of workplace conflict. When employees feel undervalued in their contributions or that they are taking on too much, it can lead to stress and resentment. Addressing these conflicts involves defining and communicating roles and expectations clearly, providing opportunities for employees to voice their concerns, and redistributing tasks when necessary. Ensuring every team member feels valued and adequately recognized is vital for harmonious teamwork.
- Personal Conflicts: Personal conflicts often stem from differences in personalities, values, or communication styles. These disagreements can manifest as clashes between individuals, leading to tension and a breakdown in team dynamics. Recognizing and addressing personal conflicts is crucial for a healthy work environment. Encouraging open and respectful communication can help prevent these conflicts from becoming toxic and hindering workplace productivity. Mediation, when necessary, can also be a helpful step in resolving deeply ingrained personal conflicts.
Understanding these common types of workplace conflicts is essential for organizations seeking to foster positive outcomes through effective conflict management and resolution.
Managing workplace conflicts: tips for managers
Since some workplace conflicts are always going to be inevitable, managers can learn to facilitate successful conflict resolution and minimize harmful or avoidable conflicts.
Preventing avoidable conflicts
Some conflicts may be avoided by managers addressing problem areas in the workplace itself. For instance, SHRM suggests addressing perceived inequity of workplace resources, communication about roles and expectations, mismanagement of organizational transitions, and other aspects of your workplace’s organizational culture.While incentivizing workers may be useful in many contexts, you may also be able to curtail certain conflicts by avoiding the promotion of unhealthy workplace competition. These are the types of policies and practices which lead to promoting individualism over teamwork and can lead to a hostile and unproductive work environment.
Preventing harmful conflicts
Managers should set a clear precedent about how conflicts are handled between employees, or between employees and their superiors. This includes fostering an environment that encourages open, respectful, and responsible communication, and reduces stigmas, bullying, harassment, and discrimination.Trainings for both managers and employees regarding appropriate ways to resolve conflicts between individual employees can be useful. Proper training can help managers recognize potential warning signs for conflicts before they escalate, and they can communicate these issues to HR leaders before a conflict becomes a major concern.Employees can also be given a clear understanding of the policies and procedures of how to report inappropriate or harmful conflicts that violate the rules.
Resolving harmful conflicts
There are times when disagreements can escalate into harmful behavior, requiring HR professionals or other leaders to step in and mediate a resolution.The University of California, Berkeley’s Guide to Managing Human Resources suggests the following for mediating conflicts:
- Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation and listen.
- Allow for emotions to be expressed before trying to solve the problem.
- Define the problem by meeting with employees separately at first.
- Determine needs and why people want the solutions they want.
- Find common areas of agreement.
- Find solutions that satisfy the needs you determined earlier.
- Determine your follow-up and what will happen if the conflict continues.
Managing workplace conflicts: tips for employees
Knowing how to manage workplace conflicts can be an important tool in employees’ maintaining their mental health wellness.
When to handle it yourself
SHRM suggests that employees attempt to resolve manageable conflicts one-on-one before going directly to managers or HR personnel. Refer to the skills you may have learned in conflict resolution training, in addressing the issue of the conflict, not the personalities of the individuals. If necessary, you should feel open to coaching from HR or to discuss issues with workplace leaders.
When to seek help
There are certain types of conflicts that go beyond what is acceptable or manageable for employees on their own. For instance, if a conflict escalates into inappropriate or potentially illegal activity, SHRM states that management should always be expected to handle those issues.Finally, employees should be aware of all the resources available to them, including mental health resources to address the adverse psychological impacts of interoffice conflicts. Effective mental health solutions can help prevent absenteeism, turnover, lost productivity, preventable health care costs, and other potential issues employees and their companies face from the stress of conflict.Spring Health supports employers with comprehensive mental health care benefits, using machine-learning models focused on personalizing treatment to each employee’s specific needs. This approach helps reduce the trial and error approach that slows down the treatment process and helps employees get the help they need as quickly as possible.
Request a demo to find out how Spring Health can support the mental health of your employees.