November 5, 2013

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Tit for Tat

5 Tips for Dealing with Office Conflict

By Spencer Sutherland

November 5, 2013


Human resources is a tough job, filled with a million thankless tasks like enforcing the dress code, explaining the insurance premium hikes and, of course, dealing with quarrelling coworkers. With so many different personalities in an office—not to mention different opinions, beliefs and favorite football teams—it’s easy to see how conflicts could arise.

“Conflict, whether it’s at home or at the workplace, creates stressful situations that don’t allow people to perform at their personal best,” explains Summer Wilson, HR director at Mindshare Technologies, a feedback management firm that helps companies understand what their clients are thinking and feeling. “In the workplace, conflict makes it difficult for people to focus and fully engage, which obviously has a negative impact on everyone involved.”

Because we’re all going to have to deal with office conflict at some point or another, Wilson offers up five tips for dealing with it.

1. Lead by Example

Workplace conflict generally falls into one of three categories: conflict between employees, conflict between employee(s) and manager(s), or conflict between leaders. While they’re all problematic, Wilson says, conflict between leaders can be the most detrimental, as it can lead to disrupted morale and decreased productivity throughout the entire organization.

Fortunately, the opposite is also true. “If leaders create a positive example and a culture of open communication between all employees, it can have a very positive trickle-down effect,” she says. “Creating a culture where people can speak openly and respectfully challenge each other leads to trust, creativity and a healthy environment.”

2. Hire the Right People

One of the best ways to cut down on conflict is to simply hire the right people. “It’s important to hire people who have emotional maturity, who can challenge ideas and handle conflict in a constructive and healthy manner,” Wilson says. “A lot of responsibility falls on the shoulders of the individual employees to build great relationships with each other.” Those relationships—forged in good times—become the glue that holds a team together when times get tough.

 3. Take Time to De-stress

Employees are much more likely to lash out when they’re feeling stressed. Smart companies give their employees the time and outlet to decompress, Wilson says. “At Mindshare, we play ultimate Frisbee at lunchtime a few times a week. The leaders join in and it’s a good way for us all to get the stress out.”

Whether it’s through sports or any other common interest, allowing employees to take a break will lead to more productivity in the long run.

4. Respectfully Challenge

“The reason our business has moved forward is because we really encourage our employees to voice their ideas and opinions,” Wilson says. However, voicing an opinion may mean challenging someone else’s point of view. The key to a successful exchange is respectfully challenging the idea. That means expressing your thoughts in a way that is collaborative and does not disrespect or demean anyone. “It’s not the easiest thing to do,” Wilson says, “but it leads to the best results.”

5. Talk to Your Co-worker before Talking to the Boss

When a co-worker is driving you crazy, it’s tempting to turn to your supervisor or the HR department to help fix the problem, even though that may not be the best approach. “Anytime you bring someone else into the situation to ‘be on your side,’ your co-worker is going to feel attacked,” Wilson explains. “The best thing you can do is talk directly to the person that is upsetting you. Taking the time to do that—in a respectful way—shows that you care about the situation being better for everyone involved.”

If All Else Fails

If none of these tips work, Wilson offers up one more suggestion. “The last-ditch effort is just beating the hell out of each other,” she says with a laugh. Just don’t tell HR.  

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