Workplaces are dynamic and diverse. From offices to construction sites, organizations face ever changing environments full of information and constant interactions. Add to that deadlines and lead to team power dynamics and you have the perfect storm for brewing conflict. Resolving conflict is a daily exercise in most organizations—or at least it should be. Sometimes conflict is avoided, concealed or ignored in some way shape or form. While this might create a semblance of a positive and healthy culture, this couldn't be further from the truth.
It turns out, removing conflict from the workplace isn’t very feasible. If your team consists of more than one person, you will have at least two different viewpoints to any issue, and the larger and more complex your organization becomes, the more this reality sets in. Efforts to remove conflict could even be counterproductive. A workplace study found that 16% percent of employees would suppress their opinion in order to avoid a confrontation which in turn means that business owners are often missing out on the best ideas and innovations from their team  There are several benefits to workplace conflict that you and your team could be missing out on through conflict avoidance.
Even the best organizations can be waylaid by a broken process or a problematic strategy. Conflict can be the early detection system for problems that could be hiding beneath the surface. What seems like a trivial fight could give you insight into how your organizational structure is causing frustration and inefficiency.
Relationships are a vital component of a healthy organizational culture. Whether it is your team’s relationships with each other or the complex relationships between leadership and team, unresolved conflict can fester and rot your company from within by breaking down trust and morale. Studies of ongoing conflict have shown that not only will prolonged negative interactions decrease satisfaction at home and at work, but can lead to functional limitations as well as lower self-reported health and more medical conditions. Finding ways to resolve conflict instead of avoiding it or ignoring it can be a starting point for healthier employees who can come to work and function at their best.
Productivity and Growth
The most successful teams often have a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints and (yes you guessed it) plenty of opportunity for conflict as they strive to solve problems and meet goals. However, with the right training, conflict can become the crucible for those high functioning teams to reach new heights and operate at their peak. Conflict can help your team learn more about themselves and the problems they are trying to solve.
If you want to get the most out of your team and your organization, conflict will be a part of your journey. You can’t eliminate it outright, and left unresolved it has negative impacts. So the real question is—how can you create a culture that deals with conflict in a healthy way? Here are a few pointers:
In order to begin addressing conflict in a healthy way, it is vital to understand the potential sources of conflict within your organization. Workplace research firm Emtrain conducted a study of 40,000 employees across 125 different organizations and came up with 6 primary sources of conflict—3 people factors, and 3 organizational factors. 
The study found that over half of employees will interact with 5 or more co-workers who are of a different race, gender or generation. As workforces become increasingly diverse it is interesting to note that less than one-third of surveyed employees felt comfortable being themselves at work. The first step to combat the discomfort that can result from interactions shaped by stereotypes is to generate awareness of the issues. Openly discuss differences and evaluate your team members' interactions with other groups.
If you think back to high school or college you can probably think of some individuals who were lacking social intelligence. They said things at the wrong time and could often come across as awkward or inappropriate. Social intelligence is the ability to navigate social situations and recognize the appropriate way to handle them. While you might assume that people grow into this ability over time, the survey told another story. Here are just a few of the highlights (or lowlights):
A crucial takeaway from the results was that employees who saw low levels of social intelligence throughout their team felt less comfortable speaking up and had low levels of trust and respect. Consider holding training sessions to improve your team’s social intelligence and keep an eye out for employees whose lack of social intelligence could be impacting their teammates.
Everyone of your team members brings a unique perspective and set of experiences to your organization. Their life experiences not only shape their opinions on topics like work and company culture, but also their approach to conflict. Some would discuss conflict with their manager, others might ignore the issue altogether, while another set may simply begin looking for a new opportunity to get away from the conflict completely. Making sure your team is trained on healthy conflict resolution could be the key to retaining some of your best people.
In-groups and out-groups
Most of us have, at some point in our lives, encountered in-groups and out-groups. Jocks vs. Nerds, Cheerleaders vs the Mathletes. This concept applies within organizations as well. These groups can form around race, gender, political views, or a variety of other factors. Perhaps most importantly of all—these groups have a legitimate impact on your workers’ experience. The outgroups were 20% less likely to receive support and trust from their manager when discussing an issue, and they are perceived differently as well. When shown videos of inappropriate behavior like harassment, employees were less likely to view the in-group members as perpetrators than people from the out-groups. Certain members of your team could be having a truly second class experience with your organization which can create a great amount of tension and conflict.
There is a balance of power within almost every organization that shapes many of the interactions between employees and their managers. The core of this issue as it relates to conflict is the power that a manager has over the daily activities, career, and livelihood of their subordinates. Nearly a third of the study respondents indicated that the greatest source of conflict within their organization stemmed from the power imbalance between team members and leadership. Toxic or simply unintentional leadership can get expensive too—58% of employees who leave an organization do so to get away from their current manager.  Careful examination of your power dynamics will be vital to understand potential frustrations and sources of conflict within your company.
Norms and practices
Norms and practices could essentially be summed up as the written and unwritten rules that govern the behavior considered appropriate throughout your organization. Think of them as a workers guide to the way your company does things. This unwritten/written rule book is actually one of the greatest predictors of a healthy culture in an organization . When norms and practices were obvious to employees and had a strong presence in the operation of the organization, 75% of employees reported their companies as healthy, as opposed to 32% in organizations that did not have strong norms and practices.
In the absence of strong norms anyone’s behavior (whether toxic or positive) can set the tone for the entire organization. Establish strong positive norms and practices with training sessions, mentorship, providing feedback, and with role modeling from leadership.
As with many elements of culture, conflict resolution begins from the top. If leadership waits for their teams to solve problems on their own, they will be waiting forever. Instead, they must run point on transforming unresolved conflict from a negative festering force to one that can empower their employees and spur growth. Unsure how to start?
Set the tone
Conflict resolution begins before conflict has even shown its face. You need to create a culture that fosters openness, constructive criticism, problem solving and trust. There are a number of dimensions that go into creating culture. Your goal should be to communicate to your team that:
Gather information and communicate accurately
One of the biggest mistakes leadership can make is to assume that they understand all the facts. Make sure to gather as much information as you can and get the perspectives of everyone involved. When you have done your due diligence to understand the conflict—make sure to do your best to communicate effectively.
Identify solutions and take action
Solutions is intentionally plural here. All too often, organizations fall into the trap of only exploring one solution. Figure out all of the potential solutions for the cause of the conflict and evaluate them. Which one best addresses all of the involved parties goals and agendas and also supports the overall health and mission of the organization. With your solution identified you will need to take action. Establish a step-by-step plan and communicate it to stakeholders. Be willing to monitor progress and meat on the issue again if necessary.
Establishing a proactive approach to your culture and conflict resolution is just a starting point. Your team is composed of unique individuals and each of them will have a unique approach when conflict arises. Some will be more apt to avoid conflict while others may instigate and relish conflict. Situational leadership is a leader’s ability to meet their team where they are at and lead each individual through conflicts and challenges with the leadership style that will be most effective. In our next blog post we will be diving into situational leadership and breaking down three common personas on handling conflict, so keep your eyes peeled for that. If you have any questions on conflict resolution or a healthy culture, just reach out via this link, we would love to learn more about you and your organization.
Lareche, W. (2018). Your best employees are leaving. but is it personal or practical? Ranstad. Retrieved November 24, 2021, from https://rlc.randstadusa.com/press-room/press-releases/your-best-employees-are-leaving-but-is-it-personal-or-practical.