What we’re talking about 

Fall outs and disagreements are pretty much unavoidable in the workplace – and small businesses are particularly vulnerable. Quick growth often means that employees have to change and adapt by wearing hats they didn’t necessarily sign up to wear. When those disagreements fester and grow into conflict, it means trouble. Conflict can come in all shapes and sizes, from passive-aggressive disputes on email to blazing rows IRL.

Every person has a different personality, skill set and style of working; they will have their own day-to-day priorities, ideas on how to move forward and individual career goals. Diversity of thought is good as it breeds original ideas, but it also needs occasional management and mediation. In the absence of a dedicated HR team, you’ll need to play an active role in conflict resolution.

Why it’s important

Conflict is, obviously, super unpleasant – and not only for the parties involved. If discord is left to fester, your workplace will become tense and other employees might feel as though they’re expected to take sides. Your authority will take a hit and job satisfaction is likely to plummet. In a major survey of US workers by job-search platform Randstad, 58% of people had left or were planning to leave their jobs as a result of negative office politics. At any stage in your business’ journey, you need to keep talented employees content and on board. 

The net result of conflict is lower productivity and motivation – fighting is a distraction that slows down the decision-making process. By hitting the right balance between micromanaging and being too hands-off, you’ll be avoiding negative impacts on your business’ culture and productivity.

Things to note 

Conflict can be healthy. Not only is disagreement totally natural, you can even harness it to your advantage. Debate and opposing perspectives invariably lead to original, strong ideas. It's your responsibility to assess where healthy tension and opposition has escalated to something more serious that’s negatively affecting the way the business is operating. 

There are several common causes. Why conflict has happened will influence how you deal with it and what you change going forward. Some causes relevant to small business include cultural and personality clashes, interdependencies, lack of training, miscommunication and conflict of interest. Identifying these, when conflict does emerge, will make dealing with it a lot simpler. 

It’s your responsibility to identify pain points. Conflict often occurs due to an inherent weakness in the way the business operates rather than just clashes of personality. Taking a preventative approach will mean that the number of messy disputes you need to mediate will go right down. Make sure that you understand your team (check our guide on conducting one-on-ones) by specifically focusing on their pain points and working to fix them. Encourage honesty and respect for alternative points of view, and for people to recognize hard boundaries. Clarify your overall business targets and vision – and the line between healthy disruption and personal attacks. 

Remote team conflict looks a bit different. People working from home might not experience the same slammed doors and gossiping colleagues in corridors, but conflict can still exist. It is, however, much more difficult for managers to spot it – so make sure you’re actively arranging meetings to ask employees how things (including their working relationships) are going. If your team is operating partly or completely remotely, you should also keep an eye out for other signs including snarky comments or ignored messages on online communication channels, misinterpreted emails and a lack of engagement in video calls. 

Sometimes conflict is impossible to solve. Every now and then, conflict will be too complicated and intense for you to fix. You might be able to reach an ‘agree to disagree’ management strategy with the parties involved. But, occasionally, someone may decide to resign, or move over to another project or part of the business.

How to handle conflict in your team 

1. Spot the signs. Some conflict emerges and then recedes quickly; some can be sorted out between employees; and some requires an external party to step in. If you’re attuned to your team and how it functions, you should be able to pick up early signs about things that require your input. Along with one-on-ones, keep an eye out for angry or passive-aggressive words and body language in individuals, cliques forming and meetings that are abandoned. 

2. Don’t wait around. Don’t waste any time before confronting it. Calling out disruptive behavior as it happens, or booking in a meeting to go through task-specific disagreements is the best way to go. If you let conflict fester, it will morph into something much harder to resolve, and will start to impact other staff members and your bottom line. 

3. Meet with each individual. This is especially handy if you aren’t 100% sure what’s happening and want to assess the situation before a full-scale mediation meeting. It can be informal, but make your commitment to confidentiality and impartiality clear from the outset. Likewise, if you know exactly what’s going on, meeting with each party separately is a good place to start the resolution process.

Let them know that you’ve noticed an issue, and get their go-ahead to try to fix it. Don’t scope out solutions yet – the point of these meetings is to make each person understand that you’re listening, and to calm any strong feelings that will get in the way of moving forward rationally. Encourage each employee to vocalize things they’d be reluctant to with the other people there. Tell them to come prepared to your joint meeting with an open mind, a clear idea of why they’re upset and some tangible thoughts about what would help. 

4. Schedule a meeting with both sides. Get everyone together in the same room, making time limits and ground rules clear from the very start. Explain your own position as mediator: you are an impartial third party, looking to facilitate them reaching their own solution. 

5. Figure out the problem. Allow each person to recount their perspective and viewpoint, zoning in on what’s fact and what’s emotion or assumption. Practice active listening throughout, using non-verbal cues to show you’re paying attention, and taking breaks to ask clarifying questions and to summarize what’s been said. 

6. Figure out the solution. Now that a full picture of the conflict has been created, any ill will caused purely by poor communication should have eased and each side should have a better understanding of the other’s point of view. Reassert your business’ goals, values and other common ground as a framework as you move towards a solution. This should be a collaborative process, although expectations about listening must remain the same. Open an exploratory discussion of the different paths that could be taken, establishing a list of tangible things that will change. There will be compromise involved, but make sure both sides actively agree to the next steps. 

7. Follow up. Don’t just finish the meeting and immediately move on. Thank and reward team members for making contributions and reaching an effective conclusion. Check in with each group to ensure nothing was left unsaid and that they’re getting on with their list of actions as promised. All of this will solidify bonding and constructive change; it will help to ensure things don’t go straight back to normal; and will foster a healthy approach to conflict – and dealing with it – in your team. 

8. Make the right organizational changes. It’s likely that this conflict will have exposed flaws in working situations, which you can change. That could be problems with unrealistic deadlines, workload, people’s responsibilities, the overall process or something else entirely. You should think of what measures and tweaks you can bring in to avoid similar grievances emerging again. 

Key takeaways

• Conflict takes many forms, from clashing egos and goals to disputes over what it means to work cooperatively. All of these can impact your employees’ mental health and productivity, and your business’ bottom line.

• There’s a difference between healthy tension and conflict – you need to identify when hostility emerges and stop it in its tracks. 

• Holding a structured conflict-resolution meeting – and practicing active listening – is key to resolving problems and finding the right solution to move forward. 

Learn more 

Perspective. ‘A single skill will help you get the most out of workplace conflict,’ says investment analysis expert Asit Sharma of financial advice company The Motley Fool, recalling what he learnt about conflict while consulting for a small business. Find out what that skill is here

Example. Job-advisory service The Balance Careers has a bumper list of the kind of skills you’ll need to display when resolving conflict, and examples of scenarios in which using these skills might be required. 

Tool. To get an understanding of how you currently approach handling conflict, and how developed your ‘conflict intelligence’ is, do this Thomas-Kilmann self-assessment and this one from Cinergy Coaching.

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