Conflict is inevitable in the workplace. According to one study, U.S. employees spend 2.1 hours per week involved in workplace disagreements that disrupt the flow of work, stifle creativity, and prevent collaboration.
No matter what causes these conflicts — from differences in opinion and ideals to perceived feelings of disrespect — you can handle them in a way that prompts quick resolution when you follow these 12 expert tips.
1. Take Action Immediately
“There is nothing worse than festering animosity, especially in a work setting,” says Bill Fish, Co-Founder of Tuck.com. “Delayed action allows emotions to multiply on top of each other, and the issue can spiral out of control.” Fish suggests addressing conflicts right away to prevent ongoing damage to morale, productivity and the company. “If I get wind of any sort of an issue, I take it upon myself to bring all parties involved into an office right away to discuss it thoroughly,” Fish told InCredibly. “Many times, some simple transparent discussion can lead to a resolution.”
However, taking immediate action doesn’t mean being brash – many experts advise that you count to ten or do something else to cool off during the heat of the moment, prior to acting.
2. Ask for Proposed Solutions
If two of your employees are struggling to collaborate and it’s starting to affect their work, it’s important to hear them out and give them some time to vent. However, don’t let them simply complain about the other person. “Ensure that your conversation is constructive by asking them to come prepared with proposed solutions,” advises Jacob Dayan, Esq., CEO and Co-founder of Community Tax. “This is not a guarantee that their proposed changes will take effect, but it does encourage them to not focus solely on what’s wrong and instead try to resolve the issue. Venting can be a healthy part of the process, but only if it is followed up by working to find a solution.”
3. Don’t Take Sides
In many office environments, managers form friendships with their employees. This can get tricky when you have to resolve a conflict between one of your friends and another employee. The other employee can become very sensitive to whether or not you’re treating them the same as you treat your friends. “It’s important to make it very clear that you are treating all employees fairly and not taking sides,” Dayan adds. “When you’re outside the office, be sure to keep all communication with your friend focused on non-work-related subjects, or at least refrain from discussing the conflict only with your friend and not the other person involved in the dispute.”
4. Let Them Talk It Out
Few workplace conflicts can be completely resolved from the top-down, and mediation often fails when it’s micro-managed. That’s why you should encourage feuding co-workers to talk through their issues.
“One option that has worked for me is to meet with the individuals involved separately and then together, and then to leave them alone to talk to each other,” says Jennifer Crittenden, author of The Discreet Guide for Executive Women. “I find that once they are no longer performing in front of an audience where they have to be ‘right,’ they sometimes find a way to bridge the gap and leave with a better understanding of each other. “Eventually the two individuals do have to work with each other without supervision, so it’s worth getting them on that path sooner rather than later,” Crittenden explains.
5. Hold Monthly 1:1 Meetings With Every Employee
Managers and business owners can get blindsided by workplace conflicts when they aren’t hearing from individual team members on a regular basis. The solution is to make sure you give all your employees enough face-time to understand their needs. “After trying several strategies over the last few years, the thing that has produced the best results for me is having a one-on-one meeting with each of my direct employees once a month for 30 minutes,” says Cristian Rennella, CTO & CoFounder of oMelhorTrato.com. “These are private meetings where employees share their personal or team issues, and I share my experience, my opinion, and also how the company can help them.
“In this way, both they and I can share our problems and concerns without letting the rest of the team suffer. What is spoken in these meetings, from the good to the bad, always stays in the room and is not shared with anyone else.”
6. Don’t Allow “Triangulation”
While it’s often necessary for a manager to help mediate conflicts between co-workers, knocking on your door shouldn’t be your employees’ first option when problems arise. Triangulation happens when someone has an issue with one person but goes to someone else to resolve it for them, such as a manager. This needlessly involves people who don’t need to be involved and can easily waste managers’ time.
“If someone has an issue, they should go directly to the person they have an issue with and resolve it,” says Thomas R. Harris, Co-owner of The Exceptional Skills. “If they can’t resolve it, they can either choose a third party they both agree with to mediate, or there could be an established team leader or mentor who has that responsibility. Either way, have it set as company policy what direction to take.”
Aside from being a time-waster, triangulation leads to workers building allies for their disagreements with their co-workers. “That will destroy unity and hurt the company dearly,” Harris warns. “Instead, go directly to the person and follow protocol.”
7. Use the “O.I.I.R.” Method to Guide the Conversation
Having a formalized framework for conflict resolution can be a lot more effective than simply bringing the aggrieved parties in the same room together and having them talk without any guidelines. “At my company, we built conflict resolution into our working agreement,” says Kathy Green, Office Manager at TheraSpecs. “We discuss it openly and we deliberately review our attempts to live by our principles. The method we have agreed upon is shortened to OIIR, and printed on posters visible in every room:
Observation: This is neutral, and it’s best to start the sentence with ‘I’ rather than ‘you.’
Impact: Again, stay neutral. Resist the impulse to point fingers, assign blame, or make demands.
Interpretation: Interpret the observation and impact — not the other person’s motives or failings.
Request: The key here is to make a request, not issue an order, and do your best to remain respectful.
“We like to allow the person offering an OIIR message to complete the whole four-part speech without interruption,” Green explains. “At that point, we make space for the other person to ask clarifying questions or offer a new perspective without refuting the first person’s point of view. Our method includes agreeing on the next step — and that could be a direct resolution or simply an agreement to seek additional input.”
8. Take a No-Penalty Approach
“Conflicts aggravate when the parties get an impression that the ‘loser’ of the dispute is going to get a beating,” says Ketan Kapoor, CEO and Co-Founder of Mettl. “If you convince them that the resolution will only be a stepping stone to avoid failures and glitches in the future, then expect quick resolutions. The concerned parties will only focus on identifying the gaps rather than pointing fingers on each other or going on the defensive.”
9. Practice Active Listening
Active listening is a communication technique which requires the listener to provide feedback to the speaker and restate what they heard in their own words, which helps build empathy and reduce misunderstandings. This technique can be used by two colleagues engaged in conflict or by a supervisor trying to mediate the conflict for the employees.
According to Robin Schwartz, PHR at MFG Jobs, active listening “allows for open dialogue between the two parties in conflict and often results the parties ‘feeling heard’ as their issues and concerns are paraphrased back to them. It encourages employees to communicate issues, thoughts, concerns and feelings, which is an essential step in reducing workplace conflict.” The key is for each person involved in the conflict to listen to the other party without interrupting to defend themselves. By actively focusing on the other person’s perspective, employees see each other as partners in resolving the dispute, not opponents.
10. Focus on the Issue, Not the Person
Personal attacks make both sides of a workplace conflict dig in deeper instead of moving them towards a solution. That’s why it’s so important for everyone involved in a dispute to focus on the specific issue at hand and avoid harmful personal statements as much as possible. “The best way to facilitate conversation and conflict resolution in the workplace is to focus on points of agreement and disagreement, rather than painting a person with a whole issue,” says Harrison Doan, Director of Analytics at Loom & Leaf. “We all have disagreements, but the important thing is to ensure it doesn’t escalate past the point of contention.”
11. Use Procedural Documents to Reduce Finger-Pointing
When an organization experiences a setback, it’s rarely the result of a single employee’s bad decisions. More often, it’s a failure of process—but it can be easy for your workers to start playing the blame game. “Our real estate team operates on sale commissions, and we’ve seen conflict between members when one member falls short and loses a commission for the team,” says Jeff Miller, a real estate agent with AE Home Group. “Other members feel slighted and the financial loss can make tensions high. To prevent this conflict we came up with the idea of implementing team process documents for every task we conduct.
“All team members are given the opportunity and responsibility of contributing to this living document. If a team member fails, it isn’t because it’s the team member’s fault, but because the procedural documents owned by the entire team has fallen short. This allows everyone to take equal responsibility for the loss, which leads to positive changes to our procedural documents instead of conflict between team members,” Miller says.
A well-timed, sincere apology can be the most powerful tool in resolving workplace conflict. Sometimes, it’s the only thing an aggrieved employee needs to hear to let go of the dispute and re-focus on what’s important. “Most people don’t apologize during workplace conflicts. That hurts the relationship and things never get resolved,” says Jason Treu, author of Social Wealth and host of the Executive Breakthroughs Podcast. Treu recommends the following:
Step 1: Spend a few minutes thinking about why you should apologize and what to say. Think through how you can fix the problem, and what steps you need to take. Start taking steps before you meet with the person.
Step 2: Privately discuss the matter with the individual by apologizing. Say, “I was wrong.” Then say why you were wrong and for what reasons. Tell the person their relationship with them is very important to you.
Step 3: Ask them how and what you can do to rectify the situation.
Step 4: Let them know what you have been doing to avoid a similar conflict in the future, and then incorporate their feedback. Tell them you will give them an update on a certain date and share the progress you have made. Let them know you are committed to making this right.
“This will show them you care, are accountable, and want to fix the situation,” says Treu. “It restores trust, and you’ll both be able to move past whatever happened.”