ANDREYPOPOV | BIGSTOCK

Apr 06, 2022

How to Deal with Conflict in the Workplace

Resolve employee disputes in a timely, professional manner to ensure your work environment is a positive, supportive one

Some days being a manager of a feed and grain business feels like being a parent. There are squabbles, conflicts, differences of opinion and all the messiness that can be part of family drama — but at work.

While these personnel issues can be very difficult at times, most of these challenges can be handled in a timely and professional manner and sorted out to the benefit of your business and all those involved.

Sources of conflict

In general, personnel conflicts tend to arise due to our differences (likes/dislikes, personalities, priorities, etc.) or issues around organizational structure, job definition, communication and expectations. Wendy Loewen, managing director of the ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership, identifies six common sources of interpersonal conflict within an organization.

She notes taking time up front to think about the root cause of the conflict (and not assessing blame until you do) is an important first step in managing the issue.

1. Lack of role clarification. This conflict may emerge when it’s unclear who is responsible for a task or part of a process or project. Clear job descriptions and well-outlined expectations can reduce this type of conflict.

2. Poor processes. Poorly defined procedures and processes can create discord. Regularly reviewing your policies and procedures can help to support collaboration and teamwork.

3. Communication problems. Poor communication contributes to conflict and can occur at all levels of staffing within your feed and grain business. Keeping channels of communication open, communicating clearly and often, and supporting a culture where questions are welcomed helps mitigate conflict.

4. Lack of/unclear performance standards. When your performance standards and expectations are not clear, employees quickly apply their own personal expectations around both quantity and quality of work. This can put them at odds with others whose standards are different. As manager, be fair, clear and consistent in articulating performance standards.

5. Lack of resources. If your employees are competing for resources (managerial support, tools and equipment, financial resources), the stage is set for competition and conflict. If possible, provide what is needed to build a spirit of collaboration rather than competition.

6. Unreasonable time constraints. Conflict can occur when coworkers are not aware of all of the steps involved in a process and the time others need to complete their portion of a task or process.

This conflict is particularly problematic when special orders or rush jobs are needed. As manager, take time to consider job design and process. Cross-training employees can help. Ask employees to communicate clearly and considerately with each other.

Strategies for dealing with conflict

As mentioned, clarifying the source of conflict should be the first step in resolving it. Investigating and defining the root cause of the conflict helps you to understand how the issue grew in the first place and allows you to get both parties to agree what the issue is.

During the “fact-finding” portion, you will need to listen well to both sides, ask questions and work to make sure the parties in conflict know you hear what they are saying.

Recognize the true cause may not be the individuals, but something structural — poorly defined roles or a lack of communication from management. Be willing to look in the mirror and ask if you bear some responsibility.

The conversations you have should be held in a safe, private place. Depending on the conflict, it will likely be best to hear out the parties individually before bringing them together.

This conversation should be held in your office so as not to show favoritism to one of the parties. Your conversations should provide plenty of opportunity for the parties to air out their views and perceptions.

Listen actively and embrace a positive and assertive approach during your meeting. In addition, work to express your feelings appropriately. Conflict of any type can create a surge of emotions such as anger, despair, sorrow and even happiness for all parties.

Your job as manager is to manage through these emotions with respect and careful examination of what your employee is experiencing. Remain rational and focused — and try not to take sides.

After listening to the concerns of both parties, take the time to investigate. Try not to pre-judge or come up with a final verdict based on what you initially heard.

Depending on how complex the conflict is, it generally pays to dig deeper and find out more. This helps you with the background context and opinions and insights from others who are tangentially involved.

Your primary goal in conflict management is to resolve the issue in a positive way and ensure that it does not re-surface. Part of the process is to brainstorm, separately with the conflicting parties, about possible solutions which allow you to meet common goals.

The final step in resolving conflict is for all parties to agree on a best solution and determine the responsibilities each party has in the resolution.

What is the end goal?

Finding common ground where possible and getting general agreement on how to move forward is the end goal. The affected parties may still feel upset or mad, but in the end, the goal is for them to feel that they were heard, that you investigated the situation, and that you were fair in the resolution of the conflict — even if they don’t necessarily completely agree with the resolution you have chosen.

Transparency and trust are important. If you have been open and honest with the involved parties during the conflict resolution, you build trust and more buy-in to the solution.

As a good manager, you should continue to evaluate how things are going and continue to communicate with the affected parties to assess the situation.

In addition, there may be lessons that apply more broadly that you can learn to help ensure the same conflict does not resurface in another area.

How to prevent conflict

One strategy to employ is to avert conflict in the first place. Trust is a foundation of all relationships. Building and maintaining trust with employees is essential to professional relationships. Show interest in their lives and emotions by asking questions and giving credit when it is due.

Such relationships can help you be sensitive to emerging issues early and address them before they become full-blown problems. The earlier you address a budding conflict, the better. Hoping a situation will solve itself rarely works.

An assessment by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in “The 3 Elements of Trust” in the Harvard Business Review found there are three essential elements of trust.

  1. Developing a positive relationship with coworkers
  2. Possessing good judgment/expertise
  3. Maintaining consistency in your words and actions

As you build relationships, remember to treat everyone fairly. If too much favor is shown, you may find that you are the reason for a conflict.

Always try to handle a conflict as soon as possible. Sometimes, sleeping on the issue provides the space necessary to find a clear resolution. It’s best to decide how quickly to take action based on the weight and complexity of the situation.

Be mindful that ignoring a conflict for more than a day or two, may result in heightened negative emotion, making it worse.

Any discussion about conflict would be incomplete without mentioning possible legal issues. As a manager, you simply must keep your guard up for conflict that might present elements of discrimination of any form, including workplace harassment, pay inequities, etc.

If you have any sense that the conflict could go down some legal path, make sure you bring your legal counsel for advice early in the process. ■

Authors:
Dr. John Foltz
is Interim Associate Director, Farm Financial Management and Policy Institute, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH and Dean Emeritus, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Professor, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID.

Becky Bernet is a senior at the Ohio State University, majoring in Agricultural Communications.

Dr. Jay Akridge is Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Diversity and Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics, Purdue University.

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