When colleagues clash

How to tackle workplace battles before they blow up.

Sometimes a little tension is necessary — wouldn’t Game of Thrones be unbearably dull without all the political machinations, not to mention the sword fights? Of course, there’s one place where this emphatically does not apply — the office. Conflicts between employees can and do have disastrous consequences.

Addressing conflict in the workplace is a necessary (though not particularly enjoyable) task. When members of his team are at odds, Rami Jurdi, an associate at Brookfield Asset Management in Toronto, steps in right away and has a one-on-one conversation with each employee before bringing them together to discuss the issue broadly. When he needs to be the mediator for his team, "I feel uneasy," he says. "However, I try to diffuse the conflict as quickly as possible."

It makes sense. Characters on HBO epics aside, no one really likes clashing with others, even though it may be an integral part of our interactions with friends, family and, yes, colleagues. This holds true for managers, who by definition must play mediator for their employees. But ignoring conflicts between team members is never ideal.

"If a manager doesn’t manage effectively, conflict can result in less trust, wasted time and resources, reduced creativity and adaptability," says Robert Pidgeon, a mediator and the founder of Toronto-based conflict resolution consulting firm Clear Resolve. He notes that conflict itself isn’t inherently negative, but a poorly managed one has more costs than benefits. And it takes a toll on workers too. "There’s a personal cost for employees," says Christian Codrington, director of regulatory affairs and member value at the Human Resources Management Association and a former HR professional in senior management roles at Best Buy Canada and Starbucks. "Suddenly, people are calling in sick because they’re stressed. A rise in absenteeism has been well documented in private and public sectors. I can’t say conflict is causing absenteeism, but absenteeism can be the result of it." Barbara Kellerman, a leadership expert and the author of Hard Times: Leadership in America, agrees. "Sometimes the costs of workplace conflict are literal. Recalcitrant employees can be demoted or fired or marginalized."

Plagued by tensions in your team? Here are seven strategies for addressing workplace wars.

Understand your workforce

Keep the changing nature of the workforce in mind. "There has been a real change in demography," says Codrington. Younger folks have different needs than their older colleagues, an example of which is a desire to know the reasoning behind decisions. "It’s no longer OK to say, ‘Jump’ and have people jump. Today, part of management is about helping people understand one another."

Create a communicative culture

Pidgeon believes the easiest way for a manager to combat conflicts is to foster an office culture where employees are motivated to sort out issues among themselves. "Make it clear that you prioritize employees working things out together, face-to-face in a way that satisfies everyone," he says. And if you do have to step in, do it with a light touch, providing assistance, guidance and coaching without handing down non-negotiable solutions. "Don’t resolve, just manage," Pidgeon says.

Intervene early

When a disagreement does get beyond the ability of employees to resolve, don’t hesitate to step in. Without intervention, a seemingly insignificant tiff between coworkers can balloon into a toxic situation that affects the whole team. "Managers need to let their people find a way to work together, but also know when to jump in and say, ‘Have we made progress? Why not?’" says Codrington. "But knowing when to intervene is more of an art than a science." To that end, communication is key: touch base with the team regularly and follow up with one-on-one conversations if you notice any red flags.

Keep your ears open

"Employees who feel heard and supported are more likely to be empowered to understand what’s important to them and to do something about it on their own," says Pidgeon. "Often, listening to people’s interests and how they are experiencing a situation, even without agreeing with them or offering a solution, can be extremely helpful, particularly if done early in an escalation." When an employee brings up an issue, resist the urge to immediately throw out potential fixes. Instead, "listen for the underlying causes of this incident and for clues about overall team dynamics," he says. You’ll likely find that as employees clarify the issue for you, they find themselves understanding it better too.

Ask the right questions

When it’s time to pipe up, stick to asking questions first. "When you are the mediator, you have to ask some probing questions of the people in the conflict without alienating them," says Codrington. "A question I often ask is not ‘Why did this happen?’ It’s ‘What’s important to you about this?’" Asking employees to examine the emotions behind the disagreement, for example, allows you to bypass the issue of who said what and get to the core of the problem. You can then help the employee see where his or her emotions are getting in the way and help him or her figure out an equitable solution.

Partner with HR

Often as a manager, you need to team up with a more objective third party. The HR department should play a role in resolving office battles even before conflicts happen. "Senior management and HR should come up with a code of conduct," says Codrington. What’s actually in the code will be different for every company, but it’s important to explicitly lay out what kind of behaviour is acceptable — and what’s not. Codrington admits HR walks a fine line, acting as both an advocate for employees and a management rep, but there shouldn’t be a conflict of interest (pardon the pun) in those roles. "HR’s job is to normalize what’s appropriate behaviour. Later, it’s to provide conflict resolution training to employees who need it, and finally, it’s to put out fires if a situation happens to ignite."

Don’t play the blame game

Possibly the most important part of quashing quarrels is avoiding assigning blame. Even if it appears clear that one person is responsible, highlighting who’s at fault doesn’t help, especially in a group setting. "Ask the people involved in the issue to step back and imagine they were being videotaped and how would they evaluate their actions," says Codrington. "But do that kind of stuff privately. It allows people to save face when they’ve dug themselves into a tough position."

That’s a key element of Jurdi’s approach: he talks to each employee alone before setting up a meeting with all parties. "I always try to help them understand that making a mistake is not the main issue — learning from it is what counts," he says.