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The Art of Management: Dealing with Conflicts in Your Team

Every month, we speak to a different business leader, seeking advice in their area of expertise. These interviews provide insight into a wide range of different business disciplines which other managers and leaders can use in their line of work.

This month, we’re talking to Carl Reader, a small business guru and founder of the #BeYourOwnBoss movement. Carl’s primary objective is to help small business leaders navigate difficult moments as they grow their start-up.

Carl Reader headshot
Here, he discusses the best processes for business leaders looking to deal with conflict in the workplace.

What steps should be taken by a business to minimise the risk of conflict in the workplace?

Prevention is always better than cure. I believe the biggest and most important thing that business leaders can do is keep their ear to the ground and listen to what is actually going on. This way, they can better understand any potential clash points. These might just be different personalities, or worse, the build-up of a hostile or provocative environment. If the managers aren’t there listening for it, then unfortunately the business is leaving itself open for the conflicts to arise.

Should a business have a conflict resolution strategy in place to ensure consistency across cases? Or, should it be tackled on a case-by-case basis?

From that perspective, yes, a business should have a consistent approach. The risk of not being consistent is that the business leaves itself open to potential discrimination claims. It’s wise, but also ethically and morally correct to make sure that you deal with things in the same way.

However – that said – each case is different. So, whilst your process of dealing with it should be the same, you do need to consider the individual circumstances in a situation. What could, on the face of it, look like two similar situations, actually may be found to have been caused by completely different reasons, and therefore have different routes to resolution.

Angry millennial couple complaining having claims about bad contract terms disputing at meeting with lawyer, deceived dissatisfied customers demanding compensation, legal fight and fraud concept

Should a business try to temper employees regularly involved in conflicts? Or does their attitude simply suggest they are passionate about their responsibilities and the business’ performance?

Yes, they should. Everyone wants their employees to be passionate. However, one person’s passion can easily tip over into aggression or being overly assertive. If it is disrupting the team, then unfortunately that needs to be removed from the organisation.

There are two key reasons for this – firstly, it upsets and unsettles other staff members, and secondly, what can happen is that younger, more impressionable employees might believe that is what they need to do to get ahead. The challenge is that if more and more employees start working in that way, eventually you are left with a business with a horrible culture.

When resolving conflict – is there a preferable communications method? Should it be done face-to-face, or is an official letter better?

It always, always has to be face-to-face in my opinion. This is because there are two sides to every story, and you also need to ask the right questions to get a true understanding of how the conflict has arisen. However, if the matter has the potential to lead to disciplinary issues, you obviously need to follow the correct disciplinary process, which almost certainly includes sending letters.

Silhouette shadows of business people talking in office

At what point should HR be brought in to help resolve a conflict in the workplace? Should they be the first point of contact, or should a line manager/department senior first attempt to find a resolution?

In an ideal world, for bigger businesses with unlimited budgets, HR would probably be called in as early as possible. However, there are a couple of issues with that. First, the conflict may just be a storm in a teacup. Perhaps just an overflowing of emotion after a misunderstood comment on Facebook from one employee to another. So, whilst some businesses might feel that it’s necessary to have HR involved, it could actually be overkill for something which is going to resolve naturally.

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The other side to that is that many businesses outsource their HR, so getting them involved at an early stage is potentially a significant cost that the business would rather avoid. The practical way of dealing with it is for the line managers to be involved. If they are doing their job properly, they should have identified the conflict arising before the point it gets reported to the organisation.

When a conflict arises in the workplace, is there ever any benefit to stepping back and hoping for a resolution to appear naturally?

It depends on the strength of the management team, and their ability to be on the case. I’ve spoken about the effective manager who keeps their ear to the ground and identifies conflicts before they arise. Now, if you have a manager like that, the last thing you want them to be doing is voicing the opinion that there’s a potential conflict, when the conflict hasn’t arisen. All that does is undermine the confidence and upsets all parties involved.

So, it really depends what stage it’s at – if it’s identified at a very early stage, which you would hope it would be, then yes, you should try to engineer the situation so that the conflict is prevented before it arises. If it’s a case of a conflict being reported, then I believe the best way of dealing with these things is face-to-face, and as early as possible. This reassures the employee that you have acknowledged their concerns and taken them on board, and also nips any issues in the bud.

If two or more colleagues continue to clash, should the business consider moving one to a different department/position? Or does this set a bad precedent?

This is a tricky one! It does potentially set a bad precedent that people believe they can play up and be moved within the organisation. It also potentially leads you to having staff members in unsuitable roles. So, on that basis, I would say each situation needs to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. The employees need to be considered for their suitability of being moved. Sometimes, as management, it’s necessary to face up to the fact that employees don’t choose to work together – they are placed together by employers in the hope that they will work together, and sometimes you need to step in and help facilitate that process.

We’d like to thank Carl for taking the time to share his expertise with us. Don’t forget to check out the other articles from The Art of Management, if you’re looking for more managerial tips and advice:

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