Workplace conflict is one of the most costly problems plaguing businesses across America. The CPP Global Human Capital Report found that 85 percent of workers face conflict at work. In total, researchers found the average employee spends 2.1 hours a week handling conflict. This totaled out to every worker spending around one full day per month embroiled in workplace problems with co-workers and leaders. When these numbers add up, negative interactions cost business owners approximately 359 billion every year. In addition to draining productivity levels, workplace conflict creates a toxic team culture, contributes to the inability to reach company goals, causes companies to lose great employees, affects absenteeism rates, and even results in business failure.
So how can executives stop this problem from occurring?
Find out how to build an effective, productive, engaged team by discovering real solutions for the top five most common types of workplace conflict listed below.
Table of Contents
Type of Conflict #1: Clashing Leadership Styles
Every person in a leadership role has a unique way of influencing the people they’re responsible for toward reaching company goals. Based on natural and learned leadership traits, leaders typically possess a dominant leadership style that determines the way they guide their direct reports. Each of the seven leadership styles has its own strengths and weaknesses. When working on a well-rounded, effective executive leadership team, it’s a good idea to identify individuals who can fill in the gaps where the team could be stronger.
Nevertheless, the various management styles can be polarizing. Because of this, conflict can arise between leaders who operate in very different ways. For example, democratic leaders want each of their employees to have a say in the company’s affairs, while an autocratic leader wants complete authority over the business. When there’s no resolution for handling workplace conflict between leadership styles, work environments become toxic and cause the team to become ineffective at achieving the company’s collective vision.
The first step in resolving a conflict between leaders with different leadership styles is awareness. This step begins during the hiring process. For this reason, it’s important leadership teams know each potential hire’s dominant leadership style and how this differs, but complements the existing team.
Another way of combating leadership conflict is by expressing gratitude and thanks for different points of view and ways of thinking. Remember, this is likely the reason the person was asked to join the team in the first place. Finding value in others’ opinions and ideas first establishes a team culture of respect and appreciation.
Additionally, when conflict arises, take some time to focus on the organization’s collective, common goal. Despite differing leadership styles, the executive team should always be conscientious of why and how they are serving others in fulfilling the business’s mission. First, determine what you can agree upon. Next, approach a solution by collaborating together on how to achieve the intended goal using your individual strengths.
Type of Conflict #2: Argumentative Team Members
Have you ever had an employee who seems naturally argumentative? For example, they use a defensive tone when you ask them to take on a new responsibility, or during meetings speak sharply to other team members, causing uncomfortable, volatile moments.
Conflict management might be difficult in this situation because if the individual has already shown signs of negative behavior, it may seem that confrontation would only make the situation worse. Nevertheless, as someone practicing effective leadership, it’s important that you create and protect the development of a healthy work environment. This can’t be done if someone on the team exhibits combative, unconstructive behavior toward you and others.
Start setting expectations for behavior and actions at work during the onboarding process. This ensures an employee knows what type of team culture they’re signing up for. Make sure you communicate the cultural values and beliefs of the business at this time—verbally and on paper. Finally, have them sign off on being accountable for what was discussed. If you’ve not included this procedure before, make sure to make it part of your onboarding process moving forward so that employees can be appropriately addressed if they become problematic.
Meet with team members who violate the organization’s cultural standards. Start by saying you’ve noticed a shift in their behavior, and ask them about why this has happened. It’s important that you first listen to their reasoning, rather than accuse them of negatively affecting the team. Based on their answer, figure out if there’s something you can do to help them. For instance, they might be experiencing burnout, which is causing them to lash out. Check back in with employees who explain their combativeness is the result of stress, anxiety, or other more serious reasons. Make sure they know you’re there to support them.
If there’s no good reason why they’re argumentative, reference the outline provided during onboarding. Let them know this offense is taken seriously, and you will hold them accountable. Should argumentativeness become a consistent source of workplace conflict, let them go. Team members should always positively contribute to the healthy work environment you’ve created. You don’t want to lose great team members because of a problem-employee.
Type of Conflict #3: Discrimination
Discrimination is the most serious source of workplace conflict on this list. Unfortunately, this isn’t an uncommon problem in business. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) cited 76,418 charges of workplace discrimination in 2018 alone. Typically, cases involving discrimination should be handled by the company’s human resources department. Nevertheless, it could be something an employee approaches you about. Whether the team member only wants your awareness or they’re serious about making a formal complaint, it’s important employers have a protocol in place when it comes to claims made about discriminatory treatment. If handled poorly, this can result in emotional damage, depression, and resentment. Additionally, unaddressed or unresolved reports of discrimination can result in serious legal issues for employers.
When an employee comes to you with an issue involving discrimination, take it seriously. Listen, ask questions, and show your support. As mentioned above, they might show concern for getting someone in trouble. Regardless, report the incident to human resources, so a record of the incident is on file. Launch an investigation into the issue using a trained professional who manages these types of cases. They’ll obtain a statement from the employee, conduct interviews with any witnesses, and heavily research the matter.
In the meantime, as the company leader, you’ll need to decide how to handle the situation while the results of the investigation are still pending. Get with your leadership team and determine the best way to handle the problem short-term and long-term. For instance, you might ask the accused person to work from home until the investigation is complete. Additionally, plan remedial action the company will take, should the investigation prove they’re at fault. Conclude the investigation by following up with the person who was discriminated against. Let them know what action the business is taking to ensure their protection.
An Important Note on This Type of Workplace Conflict
Many startups don’t have a human resources manager or department yet. This means you are responsible for staying up-to-date on employment laws. If you cannot take on this responsibility, make sure someone is covering this part of the business. Entrepreneurs want to have a protocol in place for properly addressing discrimination and protecting the well-being of team members.
Type of Conflict #4: “Office Politics” and Gossip
Handling office politics and gossip is one of the most common types of workplace conflict you’ll experience as a leader. Every time a new member joins the team, they add or detract from the company’s culture. Some hires are a positive influence on the team, while others might only appear to be during the hiring process. Similar to handling an argumentative employee, this type of behavior should never be ignored or excused. Office drama can deeply affect a team’s morale, decrease retention rates, cause a loss in the business’s productivity, and even affect an organization’s bottom line.
The best way to eliminate toxicity created by negatively influential employees is to have a thorough hiring process. Create a comprehensive process each candidate must go through. Don’t make exceptions for people, no matter how long you’ve known them or how much you connect with them during the first interview. Skipping or brushing over important steps like calling references could cost you in the end.
In addition to spending a serious amount of time screening candidates, structure the company in a way that has a “zero tolerance” for gossip. For example, create measures that protect the privacy of personal information. Should a person get caught offending the policy in place, use pre-established disciplinary action.
Finally, as the company leader, it’s important to set the standard that gossip is not welcome. Practice servant leadership, teach employees how to lead, and be a source of positive influence. If you hear a group or person gossiping, stop this behavior in its tracks before it leads to workplace conflict. Intervene, meet with individuals or the group participating in unhealthy work behaviors, and let them know you’re serious about building a team culture that builds people up, rather than tears them down.
Type of Conflict #5: Putting Out Fires
Putting out fires for employees is one of the biggest drains for those in leadership roles. But, as a leader, you need to practice time management to accomplish your top priorities. Meddling in other people’s affairs takes away from the important work you need to complete. Nevertheless, team members often use their manager as a crutch when they don’t know how to handle a mistake, error, or problem. This type of workplace conflict happens for two reasons. The first is because there’s something wrong with the company’s processes. Getting involved in putting out fires can also occur when employees aren’t equipped with the leadership qualities needed for proactively tackling roadblocks before asking someone else to intervene.
If you spend most of your day putting out fires, think about why this is occurring. Ensure you’re doing everything to set your employees up for success. For instance, is work falling through the cracks because the organization doesn’t have workflow processes? No matter if you’re just starting a business, or you’ve been open for several decades, it’s important companies manage tasks and complete the business’s goals using tools such as a project management app. Team members need work laid out in an effective system, so no one inadvertently drops the ball. These types of apps even create automated, customized workflows over time, too.
If this isn’t the issue, then putting out fires is likely the result of not encouraging the team to develop their problem solving skills. Have team members review the initial goal, find the root issue of the problem, research solutions, determine the best resolution using a 5-step decision-making process, develop an action plan, and test and monitor the way in which they decided to solve the problem. The first time, work through this process with them. The next time an issue occurs and they ask you to get involved, ask them to work through this technique alone. Once they’ve come to a decision, ask them to inform you of their solution and why they decided this will work. If a problem occurs again, only ask for the outcome, rather than the solution itself.
Gain Emotional Intelligence to Prevent and Resolve Conflict
Interactions between people who have low emotional intelligence (EI) is the common thread that causes most workplace conflicts. Those who lack emotional intelligence don’t consider how their actions, words, and behaviors affect those around them. Because of this, they often lose control of themselves, hurt others’ feelings, create resentment and dislike, and aren’t able to truly connect to their team members.
When an organization has strong values, and leaders are intentional about multiplying servant leaders, EI naturally increases among team members. As authors Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan say, “The better able team members are to engage, speak, listen, hear, interpret, and respond constructively, the more likely their teams are to leverage conflict rather than be leveled by it.” This happens because people become more aware of what behaviors and actions don’t serve those around them. They also learn to value others’ needs above their own. As a result, they put in the real-life practice raising your EQ requires.
Unlike a person’s intelligence quotient (IQ), a person’s EQ (how emotional intelligence is measured), can increase over time. For more information on how to increase your EI, check out this article next: