Keeping conflict resolution civilised and constructive

The causes of workplace conflict vary enormously from minor annoyances and personality clashes, to episodes of serious aggression. And, if not resolved properly, small issues can easily escalate to become major disputes.

Minor annoyances should be quick fixes. It is a rare organisation that has never had a dispute over something irritating but relatively minor, such as food left to rot in the staff fridge, over-enthusiastic use of the reply-all function, or a colleague’s heavy-handed use of perfume.

These little grievances should be nipped in the bud early. A polite email on a Friday afternoon to remind people to clear the fridge, a message to the team to think before hitting reply-all, or a friendly request to go easy on the eau de cologne should be enough. Sometimes it’s necessary to have a private conversation if there is an ongoing problem, but these conflicts should be sorted out swiftly.

With more of us working from home or dividing time between home and office, the Dilbert cartoon scenarios of embittered disputes around water coolers may be less common. Working remotely makes it easier to emit a primal desk scream that would attract a written warning in an office, but it has also led to new sources of conflict.

Managers who don’t regularly check in on employees by phone, email or video chat can miss problems until they become serious. Employees may feel undervalued, neglected, unsupported or even resentful if communication channels have broken down. And meeting by video adds an extra challenge – it’s not always easy to observe body language but it is easy to avoid eye contact – so patience and paying are attention are important when resolving a conflict virtually.

But some principles apply, regardless of where you are working. First, be professional. If it’s a serious matter rather than something that could be quickly resolved with a casual email or a quick phone call, set up a time to have the conversation with a proper calendar invitation, whether you’re meeting virtually or in person. This gives everyone time to prepare, to think about what they would like to say and (hopefully) to remain calm.

Most of us have had sleepless nights before such a meeting but try to start the conversation with an open mind and a cool head. Sometimes, the other person or people may have no idea there was an issue and will be keen to resolve the situation amicably. It can be impossible to predict how such a meeting will pan out, so nothing is gained from playing out hypotheticals in your head.

You cannot control how a colleague will react, especially if you need to be critical or deliver bad news, but you can control your own responses. If someone yells, try not to escalate the shouting match, although that can be easier said than done. It’s better to take a deep breath and respond by saying you do not appreciate being spoken to in such a manner. Then, aim to dial back the tension by offering a solution.

Try to arrive at a meeting armed with solutions rather than just grievances. This way, the outcome is far more likely to be positive and constructive.

If, despite your best efforts, others are not prepared to be civilised and constructive, it can be best to end the meeting politely. Then you can determine whether to reattempt the conversation later when everyone has had a chance to calm down or take the matter further.

But nobody wants a workplace conflict to end up like a bitter Hollywood divorce. Early resolution of minor issues and making an extra effort to check in and communicate across entire teams will help minimise serious conflict erupting and create a more pleasant workplace for everyone.