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
  • absenteeism
  • turnover
  • discrimination
  • harassment
  • 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 orworkplace harassment, this inevitably leads to poor outcomes.

TheManagement Development Institute of Missouri State University suggests there are four common categories of workplace conflict. These include:

  • Office resources such as time, supplies, facetime with other employees, and space.
  • Employees’ and managers’ goals.
  • Roles in a project or task.
  • Personalities and values.

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.

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 encouragesopen, 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 thatemployees 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, includingmental 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.

Connor Holmes
Connor Holmes

Connor is a staff writer for Spring Health.

January 25, 2021