When Employee Conflict
Gets Ugly

Employee conflict can be healthy when it aims at resolving differences and finding a common ground. Conflict becomes harmful when it aims at winning, and proving that one is right and the other person is wrong.

How to tell the difference between the two types of conflict? And how to manage conflict in the workplace when it reaches a harmful stage?

Healthy Conflict

To recognize when conflict is still in its healthy stage, look for the following elements:

Ability and willingness to listen. The employee will show a disposition to listen to what the other person has to say. The employee will know that both parties have needs, and will make a point to learn about the other person’s needs.

Empathy. The employee can put herself in the other person’s shoes, and understand how the other person sees things. This doesn’t mean that the employee agrees with the other person’s point of view, it’s just that she can see it.

Desire for a solution. The employees will look for ways to sort out their differences, even if they each lose a little in the process. They just want to get the fight over.

Flexibility. The employee shows a disposition to change his/her behavior, to adapt to a new way of doing things that will resolve the current struggle and prevent conflict from reigniting in the future.

Awareness of give-and-take The employee recognizes that the other person makes concessions and shows willingness to make concessions back.

Detachment from outcomeThe employee doesn’t have an attachment to a specific solution. The employee shows openness toward multiple solutions that may satisfy both parties.

Harmful Conflict

To recognize when people are stuck in ugly conflict mode, look for the following elements.

Rigidity. One or both parties refuse to change anything in their behavior, they justify it by making themselves right and other person wrong. Therefore, the other person needs to change, not them.

Not truly interested in solving the problem. At this point finding a solution to the problem is secondary to winning the argument. The damage is done, solving the problem will not heal their bruised pride or righteousness.

Need to Win. The employees don’t show interest in solving the problem, but in winning, to prove the other person wrong.

Need to Save Face. The employee feels offended by the words or behavior of the other employee and seeks to preserve his pride or public identity.

Resolving Employee Conflict

You may chose to hire outside expertise to help you deal with employee conflict that has grown to the ugly stage.

If you’re willing to tackle the problem yourself, the following pointers may come in handy.

• Help the employees feel safe, even when they don’t openly look for that. Remind them that the conversation needs to remain confidential. Let them know that you’re not looking to take sides or to punish anyone. Remind them that the whole purpose of the exercise is to find a workable solution to the communication problem at hand.

• Allow each person to state their case, their point of view and their needs. Take notes so you can all refer to them later, when you begin to sort out differences and look for solutions.

• Help each person identify their true needs; the motives that may be hiding below the surface, either as masks or blind spots. Many people will need help uncovering their true issues.

This step is perhaps the most critical and the hardest. People put on masks for a reason: They may be unwilling to let others (or even themselves) see their true selves. Same goes for blind spots. They exist for a reason: they are shadows that people don’t want to see.

You’ll have to be non-judgmental when you go through this step, even when you discover that an employee’s true motives are truly nasty. You don’t have to condone them, just chalk them up to human nature and move on to find a solution.

• Help employees deal with the potential emotions that will come up. Unmanaged emotions can escalate the conflict, while managed emotions can become the gateway to a solution.

When an employee can see his own emotions coming up and still keep his presence of mind, he can more easily see his contribution to the problem.

Summing Up

Employee conflict can be healthy when it’s aimed at finding solutions to problems, but it can turn ugly when two people just want to win.

Once a problem has escalated to its unhealthy stage, it’s unlikely that it can be solved by the parties engaged in the conflict.

At this point, resolving communication problems can be outsourced to an expert in conflict resolution, or can be done by the manager in charge of the employees having communication problems.

Independently of who oversees the problem resolution, the employees need to get to the core of the issues, not just the symptoms.

This way, the road to harmony in the workplace is paved on solid ground.