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Feuding Employees: 5 Practical Tips For Managing Employee Conflict

Sometimes the hardest part of a job isn’t even doing the job itself, but rather dealing with the difficult people all around. Employees who don’t get along, or are moody and combative, can make a hostile environment for everyone. The reasons for employee feuds are numerous, and can vary from something as seemingly small as differences in opinion on the coffee order to more major things such as distribution of responsibilities or power struggles.

It is impossible to completely avoid employee disputes and disagreements in even the best of work environments; personalities, habits, principles and personal values differ from one individual to another, so some employees will naturally “click”, whereas others will have a hard time interacting and collaborating with each other. While the conflicts can prove unsettling, in some cases employee disputes are not entirely bad for a workplace. Groups of like-minded people or those employees who always strive to achieve a consensus in every situation can be vulnerable to groupthink, which can negatively affect a group’s productivity and decision-making processes. Well-handled employee conflict can even work as a great stimulant for employee creativity, motivation and competitive drive, as it pushes people out of their comfort zones and forces dialogue to reach better decisions.

That said, the line between a conflict as a positive experience and one where people never speak again is somewhat thin. A minor disagreement can escalate into a major feud in no time, given the “right” conditions and contrasting personalities. Disorganized teams, long work hours, overcrowded or open work spaces, and drama-prone coworkers who are all too often eager to add some fuel to the flames, can complicate and exacerbate the conflict, prompting the conflicting parties’ emotions to get the best of them.

Even if you aren’t in the thick of it, being around unchecked conflict can be stressful and distracting. When employee conflict gets out of hand, it hurts everyone in the vicinity:

Divided workforce. Workplace conflict is like a force field pulling in everything that surrounds it. If given enough time, the whole office will become involved in the brawl, taking sides and defending positions. The more people are involved the more challenging it is to deescalate the situation and find a resolution to it. A divided workforce is sure to undermine the teamwork that previously existed in the office and which probably took a considerable amount of time and effort to establish.

Increased turnover and loss of key employees. If a conflict between feuding employees becomes so intense that even management’s involvement cannot remedy it, a company’s Human Resources department might have to be engaged to help relocate or discharge certain people. On the other hand, some employees might quit their jobs, finding the work environment too toxic for their emotional wellbeing.

Diminished trust in leadership. If a feud has been left unattended and allowed to continue to fester for an extended period of time, the ability of a manager in charge to lead might be called into question by his/her subordinates and bosses. Some may interpret the manager’s approach, or lack thereof, to the problem as ineffective or even negligent, and begin to circulate comments that cast doubt on the manager’s willingness and ability to properly do his/her job. This may negatively affect the manager’s reputation, compensation and even position in a company.

Loss of productivity. Conflicts are incredibly disruptive – instead of putting all that time and energy into their work, the warring employees spend the office hours on bickering, gossiping, retaliating and even sabotaging one another. One study found that U.S. employees spent 2.8 hours a week handling conflict, which totals to approximately a $2,614 loss per employee per year, based on average hourly earnings of $17.95. Employees who are not directly involved in a dispute may also become less productive for a number of reasons. For example, employees who find their managers unreliable and untrustworthy are less motivated than those employees who have strong trust in the management’s leadership. Motivation and productivity are directly correlated, and so a decline in motivation will result in a corresponding drop in productivity.

Negative publicity. There is no guarantee that internal conflict will remain confined inside the company’s walls; feuding employees might take their frustrations and grievances to social media, letting everyone, including the company’s customers, competitors and investors, know about what is happening.

Since every situation is different, there is no foolproof set of instructions that would work every time for everyone. Many factors need to be accounted for when dealing with employee disputes, including company regulations and culture, unique personal circumstances and conflicting personalities, among others. The following are, however, a few pieces of practicable advice that can help managers lay the groundwork for not only resolving conflicts but also preventing minor disagreements from developing into more serious cases.

  1. Create a framework for dealing with conflict. Preventing conflicts is much easier and more desirable than having to manage them. Most people naturally don’t like confrontation and would prefer to have some guidance for handling it the right way. Oftentimes, companies’ employee handbooks don’t adequately cover the issue of employee conflict, and many companies have no written code of conduct. If this is the case in your office, then consider spearheading an effort to establish the framework for managing disputes. You can easily give your team members such a framework in the form of the 5-step SHIFT model that is based on the following steps:
  • Have each “side” or person specify the desired outcome – “To end the dispute” is too general a statement. “To resolve the conflict” is slightly better, yet still not specific enough. What does the resolution imply? What are the means to finding a working solution? Questions like these must be answered, and both quantitative and qualitative aspects accounted for, in order to define the desired outcome;
  • Get the warring factions to highlight and categorize the obstacles – not including each other; these are the major impediments that your employees need to overcome in order to achieve their desired outcome. They will soon discover that some obstacles – personal beliefs and personality traits, for example – cannot be controlled, and that trying to manipulate them will yield no result; instead, if employees view the obstacles objectively perhaps they can turn their focus to the obstacles that they can control or influence for tactical solving of the problem;
  • Identify the human factor – these are the stakeholders in a conflict, and they can be classified into four major categories based on the amount of their interest in the conflict and power to influence the conflicting parties. This step can help employees realize the impact of their dissent on others;
  • Brainstorm the possible alternatives – in order to find the best solution to the problem, your employees need to define as many alternatives as they can think of first, while relying on the case-specific criteria that they also need to define for themselves. Then, by evaluating the alternatives and eliminating the least suitable options, they will be able at arrive to the one that can be used for resolving the conflict;
  • Define the specific next steps and take disciplined action – this last, and extremely important, step in the SHIFT model highlights the steps that employees must take to dissolve their conflict. This is where, once an agreement on some alternative is reached, each party needs to create a general step-by-step implementation plan with assignments for each one.
  1. Avoid “taking sides.” The truth is that you may align with one party more than the other; however, trying to get in the middle by promoting one’s case to the other is a dangerous affair. This may, in fact, be interpreted as favoritism by other employees and have an adverse effect on your reputation and credibility. Your job is to be objective and impartial, even if you support one party’s position and not the other’s.
  2. Refrain from playing mediator. As a manager, you want your employees to be able to cope with their disputes independently. This doesn’t mean, though, that you should ignore the conflict – quite the contrary; you need to acknowledge that an issue exists and encourage the disagreeing parties to resolve it as soon as possible. Employee self-efficiency is the goal: you don’t want your employees to come running to you every time something happens, you need to give them the tools to work things out on their own.
  3. Promote communication. You must let the disputing parties know that their feud will not be tolerated because of the negative impact that it makes on the team’s morale, motivation and productivity. With that message, pay for and send them to have a lunch or coffee together and find a resolution to their problem by working together through the SHIFT framework. Encourage them to get out of the office and talk about their difficulties on a neutral ground.
  4. Model collaborative behavior. As a manager, you need to promote an environment of professionalism, civility and respect among the employees, no matter the issue or its emotional intensity. Inappropriate behavior should not only be discouraged but penalized in order to prevent it from happening again in the future. You should be your employees’ role model and act like it at all times, so make sure you and other team members are not gossiping, bad-mouthing or otherwise fomenting conflicts in the office.