Conflicts between colleagues in a workplace are not rare, and there are methods to handle them, depending on the situation. Here at Quotable Magazine, we’ve sought advice and expertise from female leaders in a plethora of industries and we’ve learned ways to identify and manage conflict in professional settings.
What Causes Conflict?
Issues between coworkers can arise for a multitude of reasons. These reasons are dependent on the workplace environment and circumstance. Issues such as miscommunication, high-pressure situations, and a difference in values are just a few triggers for conflict between employees.
“Oftentimes, people that work together will misunderstand each other, and subconsciously create tension between one another. This can stem from a number of problems, whether it is competition, unfair treatment/lack of equal opportunities or simply, differences in personality. The wrong social cue, or a poorly said phrase, can cause a rift between coworkers really fast, especially if both have domineering personalities.” – Natalie Grajcar, founder of Natu.Care
“Disrespecting each other or not respecting someone’s boundaries can be a major cause for disagreement and conflict. High-pressure situations can lead to increased stress levels, which can often manifest in conflict. Colleagues may have different values and beliefs, which can lead to disagreements and cause friction between them.” – Jennifer Spinelli, founder and CEO of Watson Buys
“People become stuck in their habits because they are comfortable and simple to follow. Change brings fear of the unknown, which not everyone is prepared to face, and it can be stressful. Any workplace brings together people with diverse backgrounds, temperaments, experiences, and preferences, which can lead to workplace conflict.” – Melissa Terry, HR at VEM-Tooling Co. Ltd.
Identifying Conflict as a Leader
One of the most important skills a business leader can have is to be able to identify when the reasons listed above—and so many others—go into effect. You cannot manage an issue without recognizing it first. Noticing signs of conflict is the first step to solving it. Some obvious signs can be avoidance, hostility, and lack of cooperation.
“Due to the nature of the professional world, people understand not to respond with violence, so unaddressed disputes become suppressed into passive aggression and avoidance. You may notice less input in meetings, an off-handed comment in the breakroom, or getting left out of an important email chain. With leadership, you will often see them grasp at power and lean into micromanagement in an effort to reestablish respect without addressing the reason for its absence. Workplace conflict is subtle, hidden, and intentionally difficult to capture with tangible moments.” – Mallorie Pollock of Conflict Resilience Co.
“Colleagues may stop cooperating with each other, not being willing to compromise or work together on projects, and conflict between colleagues can often lead to an atmosphere of gossip and the spreading of negative rumors about other people.” – Jennifer Spineli, founder and CEO of Watson Buys
Communication is Key
The most common answer given by experts for resolving an issue is communication. A boss’s job does not end at only recognizing if there is a conflict within their team—after that, it’s their responsibility to address it and facilitate a dialogue to come to a possible resolution. The first step in addressing the problem is to have an open discussion with all parties involved to get all the facts and perspectives.
“Frankly, many leaders want to walk away because they’re uncomfortable when instead they should bring the parties together. Call a meeting with the stated goals of problem solving and establishing a productive path forward. Summarize the conflict as gleaned from interviews and ask each person to speak without being interrupted by the other. Together, generate options for how the conflict can be resolved. Blaming the other person is a non-starter. Have them weigh the pros and cons of various solutions (the manager should chime in too) then narrow to 1-2 solutions.” – Louise Carnachan, leadership coach and author of “Work Jerks: How to Cope with Difficult Bosses and Colleagues”
“Leaders must take the initiative to open the case between those people involved. This way, everyone can determine if it is just a minor misunderstanding, and those people can take the closure or consequence for their actions.” – Sonya Schwartz, founder at Her Norm
“The next step is to create a plan for addressing the conflict. The possible outcomes are to either let it go, which means everyone will need to work on not letting it fester; or work together, which means talking about how to get past the conflict and find a solution for all parties involved.” – Jen Jones, editor-in-chief of Your Dog Advisor
Problem Solving Strategies
Beyond the first step of having an open dialogue that airs out everyone’s grievances, leaders need to implement specific strategies to resolve the issue. These strategies can act as a foundation for future (unavoidable) conflicts, for both employees and employers to have an understanding about a basic process on handling conflict. More so, setting a tone on how to resolve issues allows employees to realize the workplace culture they spend their professional lives in.
“Always listen to both sides. Sometimes it may seem like there is a clear ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ but don’t trust the first glance—let the employees speak their stories. Moreover, when people are upset, they need to get their feelings out. Venting to an authoritative figure will help them calm down, which then eases the process of mediation for you, as a leader.
Whenever there is conflict, ask yourself what the solution is to whatever the two employees are disagreeing about, and then ask yourself, why they haven’t agreed to the solution. What is stopping them? What are the motivations?
This will help in identifying any possible underlying issues. But also as a leader, you have to understand that not everyone is the same, and people will bicker due to their differences. Sometimes there simply isn’t a right or wrong.” – Natalie Grajcar, founder of Natu.Care
“As a leader, there are many strategies that could be implemented. There is creating an organizational culture where conflicts are openly discussed and resolved; encouraging open communication between employees in order “to build trust”; providing individual coaching for employees so that they have the skills to work in harmony with others; and providing training on conflict handling and resolution.” – Jen Jones, editor-in-chief of Your Dog Advisor
“Before beginning, it is important to agree on some ground rules to ensure everyone is respectful and civil in their interactions with each other. Instead of allowing people to place blame on one another, reframe the conversation to focus on how to move forward and resolve the conflict.” – Jennifer Spineli, founder and CEO of Watson Buys
Code of Conduct to Combat Conflict
Conflict is inevitable when working in an environment with a variety of people who inhabit diverse personas. While there are several catalysts—misunderstandings, clashing opinions, stress-induced hostility and more—that can create tension amongst co-workers because of human nature, it is still necessary to set a precedent to maintain a civil professional environment.
“Most organizations have an employee code of conduct that includes treating people with respect and/or embracing differences. It’s the rare organization that spells out behaviors that are in alignment with the values. Some companies list unacceptable behaviors such as bullying, but few (if any) state expectations for how conflicts are to be handled.
It’s up to the team’s leaders to create norms for how colleagues address issues. Norms are demonstrated in daily actions even if they were never consciously chosen. Don’t leave something this important to chance. You want to be the leader who sets and intentionally communicates expectations of how the team works together. Then act as a model by living those norms.” – Louise Carnachan, leadership coach and author of “Work Jerks: How to Cope with Difficult Bosses and Colleagues”
“Have standards for professionalism, establish policies on discrimination, bullying, and harassment, discuss communication rules, and have a disciplinary process when employees have done something wrong and deserve disciplinary actions.” – Lily Will, founder and CEO at Ever Wallpaper
Sometimes, There’s No Solution
At the end of the day, some conflicts just cannot be resolved. Differences between people cannot be fixed because sometimes people just don’t get along. In these situations, leaders need to step up and take action to ensure that these issues within their team do not bleed into productivity and dim the light on an uplifting workplace culture.
“Leaders should assess the situation to determine how best to intervene. This may involve bringing in a third-party mediator or implementing disciplinary measures depending on the severity of the issue. In any case, managers should ensure that their team members are aware that conflict resolution is a priority and should not be taken lightly.” – Jennifer Spineli, founder and CEO of Watson Buys
“The company may give out the suspension for both employees if the conflict has caused problems in the workplace. On the other hand, you must express respect to them despite not resolving the conflict. Show that you understand their experience.” – Lily Will, founder and CEO at Ever Wallpaper
Conflict comes in many forms, and it’s inevitable in a diverse workplace. When hostility between co-workers is apparent, it is a leader’s job to take control and help resolve the issues. Every situation will be unique, but some initiatives to solve problems will remain constant, and the biggest one is communication. Facilitate honest conversations, remain in a neutral stance, and hear out your employees in order to regain the peace in your environment.
Connect with the female founders, CEOs, and executives who shared their expertise:
Jen Jones: Editor in chief of https://yourdogadvisor.com
Melissa Terry: HR at VEM-Tooling Co. Ltd., firstname.lastname@example.org
Natalia Grajcar: founder of Natu.Care, email@example.com