From Both Sides: How Managers and Employees Can Solve Coworker Feuds
Conflict is a natural part of any workplace, but minor disagreements can occasionally build into personal attacks or full-fledged feuds that hurt everyone in their wake. The feuds tear through the office like a hurricane and can leave permanent scars if not addressed immediately.
Both employees and managers are responsible for settling feuds. Employees should take steps to keep problems from getting out of hand initially, while managers must be able to step in and solve problems effectively when required. Here’s how both parties can prevent a minor disagreement from growing into a Category Five office conflict.
Managers: Take Steps to Intervene Early
As a leader, you set the precedent for how conflict is addressed in your company. Your actions will affect productivity and the mental health of your team.
The nonprofit Mental Health America released a workplace health survey with more than 17,000 respondents answering questions about workplace stress and engagement. Two-thirds of respondents said they sometimes, rarely or never trust coworkers to support their work activities. Furthermore, only 36 percent of respondents felt that their supervisors would support them in their work or with workplace problems.
Beliefs about managerial support can have a detrimental effect on productivity. Absentee rates increase when employees feel too stressed or overwhelmed to go to work, and team members are less willing to collaborate. More than 60 percent of workers say they prefer to work alone because their workplace is unhelpful or hostile.
“It is important to provide equal an opportunity to each employee involved, and provide opportunity for them to explain their view,” the team at Employsure New Zealand writes. As a leader, you need to be supportive of your team, and address problems before your employees barricade themselves from the rest of the staff.
Create Opportunities for Open Communication
Creating opportunities for employees to air their problems is often half the battle in helping both parties find solutions. Margarita Hakobyan, founder of Solopreneurs, has found that lack of effective communication is the main source of many feuds. She encourages managers to create meetings for team members to openly express their stances, and to follow up with the whole company to review communication best practices.
Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, agrees and takes it a step further. He says the best way for employees to talk about issues is meeting face-to-face, without large barriers — like bulky conference tables — between them.
“Close up, we can see each other’s facial expressions and body language, and hear subtle notes of tone in their voice, all of which helps us understand and empathize with them,” he writes. “Conflicting folks across the room from one another are more likely to get in shouting matches.”
David Sturt, executive vice president at employee performance recognition provider, O.C. Tanner, watched a feud build in his company. During an office redesign, half the employees supported the idea of creating a more open workplace, while the other half wanted to keep it the same.
“A large part of managing a feud is managing expectations, and making sure one feuding side doesn’t feel like it triumphed over the other just because they advocated for the angle that was eventually selected,” Sturt says.
In this case, management had to step in to assure both sides that they would have comfortable workspaces once the redesign was complete.
Don’t Let Conflict Fester and Grow
While you may be tempted to let employees sort out their problems on their own, this can actually cause the feud to get out of hand if your team thinks management is ignoring the issue.
“Negative energy has the potential to spread rapidly through a workplace, sometimes even affecting employees who are otherwise content or uninvolved,” writes Rick Gibbs, performance specialist with HR solutions provider Insperity. “Leadership should respond quickly to maintain positive employee morale.”
When your team members see that conflict is addressed, they can be more open about their problems and feel more comfortable reaching out for mediation.
“Start by creating a working culture where conflict resolution is not a negative panic-ridden and defensive last resort, but an opportunity for the entire team to work together and make their business a happy, productive and democratic space,” Annie May Byrne Noonan at Real Business writes.
When team members see how you address conflict, they can replicate your methods to solve minor problems on their own.
Rebuild Broken Bonds With Team Bonding
Even after a feud is resolved, there may be some underlying tension among employees. This may fade over time or could build into another rift.
To reduce tension, the team at SnackNation curated a list of 39 team building activities to help staff reconnect and rebuild personal connections. These range from department-wide charity work days and peer recognition to group outings and cultural celebrations. The goal is to break down any walls that the feud caused team members to put up.
Zach Hendrix, cofounder of the Nashville-based lawn care provider marketplace GreenPal, says he used team building to reduce conflict. Four of his staff members refused to get along, to the point where Hendrix considered moving their desks or letting some work remotely. However, the root of the problem wasn’t personal for the “high-performing yet headstrong” team members: They simply didn’t want to work together.
Hendrix formed a company soccer team to encourage the staffers to play together and get to know each other outside of the office. They built team strategies on the field that led to increased collaboration in the workplace.
Employees: Consider Where Your Peers Are Coming From
While your manager is meant to be a resource and guide for nativating office conflict, you can also work to mitigate problems before they get out of hand. Taking steps to prevent conflict can save your manager time and reduce frustration.
Jerene Ang at Human Resources magazine reports that CFOs spend an average of 15 percent of their time resolving employee conflicts. Furthermore, 35 percent of CFOs spend as much as one-half of their workdays resolving conflict and managing professional disputes.
Are you decreasing the time your manager spends putting out these fires, or are you creating new ones for them each day?
Avoid Personal Attacks
The first step to preventing a problem from getting out of hand is to keep a professional disagreement from getting personal. Feuds can get particularly nasty when employees stop being professional and start attacking each other personally. Some team members tend to use personal attacks than others. Industrial-organizational psychology practitioner Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D., author of “Working with Difficult People,” calls these people “tacklers.”
Tacklers will tear you down whenever they have the chance. Even if you’re not talking about a subject related to the feud, they will go out of their way to discredit the idea purely because you were the one to come up with it. Tacklers can make it hard for management to identify how the feud started and how it can get resolved.
Start Asking Questions
Sometimes it feels good to marinate in your opinions and focus on how right you are. However, taking steps to understand others can give you the tools to empathize and see the problem both ways.
Start by asking questions about the problem and considering how your coworker sees the issues. Robin Camarote, creator of the Working Mom Tip of the Day on Alexa, shares a list of questions employees can use to better understand their feud and help both parties vocalize their concerns:
What does the other person want?
How do your two perspectives differ?
What parts of the conflict are you responsible for?
What would you be willing to do to resolve this issue?
What would you want in return?
If you don’t know the other person’s answer to these questions, they are a good place to start in your discussions. By listening to what others have to say, you can better come up with solutions to the problem.
Find Out Where You Agree
Instead of focusing on the disagreements between you and your coworkers, try to build bridges and form positive connections in relation to the problem.
Kathleen McAuliffe at Career Contessa encourages coworkers to figure out where they agree and go from there. It’s easier to resolve conflict if you start at one mutual point of agreement rather than focusing on where you disagree. Keep working through the points you agree on until you find out where the disagreement lies.
And remember, a few positive words can go a long way.
“If you want to de-escalate a conflict, the very first thing out of your mouth needs to be supportive rather than dismissive,” writes Liane Davey, Ph.D., author of “Toxic Teams; Diagnosing Your Team’s Dysfunction.” “You’ll immediately see the effect of validating someone who has felt ignored: Their shoulders will drop, they’ll take a breath, and you’ll have a window to open a dialogue.”
Steve Dinkin, president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, agrees. He emphasizes the power of words and language in discussions. By avoiding accusatory language (you said, you did) and heated words, you can keep the dialogue calm and professional.