Workplace Conflict – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Since workplace conflict is inevitable, it makes sense to look for its positive aspects. Conflict, for example, helps us think carefully about ideas and speak up about what will and won’t work. If we know our ideas will be held up to the light, we will put only our best ideas forward.

Unfortunately, conflict can move from positive to negative in the blink of an eye when instead of critiquing an idea, we are criticizing one another. At its worst, conflict can involve accusations of harassment or discrimination. This is not only unproductive, but can threaten the employer’s assets.

What are effective ways to deal with negative conflict? First, talk about group norms early and often so people know both what is expected and what is acceptable. The more a group can work together on norms, the stronger those norms become. If you need help facilitating a norms discussion, we have on-sites you might find particularly useful.

Another training many members have found useful is Workplace Respect. This class provides options for handling the gray space/relational issues that come up at work (not illegal, not a violation of policy, but rather, individual differences). Also, it levels the playing field on “respect” finger-pointing—respect is a matter of perspective. Everyone has been disrespectful at some point in time in the workplace—we just don’t realize it. The class provides an opportunity to explore those areas.

If conflict becomes more pronounced, there are a number of possible interventions. Again, a facilitator who is particularly adept at getting folks to discuss what is bothering them, and where the conflict began, can start to heal a conflicted group. Mediation, if it involves two coworkers, or group mediation, if it involves more than two, may be helpful. Another approach is a facilitated teams training, designed to unearth conflict and help bring together fractured groups. Be it mediation or team training, MSEC mediators and facilitators have a great deal of experience bringing employees and teams together after bad conflict.

When conflict becomes ugly, special measures must be taken to avoid liability. The first step is to determine if there is a factual dispute. If there is no dispute of the facts, discipline is in order. However, if the parties do not agree on what took place, it’s critical to undertake an investigation immediately. Many times, an HR manager or director with experience can conduct this investigation, but there are times when this is unwise. Examples include when the HR manager or director would not appear impartial, or if one of the persons accused has supervisory authority over HR personnel. Whatever situation that may occur at your workplace, we can either walk you through the steps in your own investigation, or come in and perform the investigation on behalf of your organization.

This is the beauty of being a member of MSEC. When the inevitable conflict arises, you know you got this!