We’ve all been there.

The dread. That sinking feeling in your stomach. No, we’re not talking about going to the dentist or doing your taxes. Unfortunately, what we’re talking about is much more consuming and potentially chronic – dealing with difficult co-workers.

As much as we might like to, one of the worst things to do is ignore these situations. That just lets the animosity fester and potentially infect other employees.

Gerald Huff, adjunct faculty member with the School of Business and Technology at Capella University, knows this first hand. For more than 40 years, Huff has served in various leadership roles as a project manager with the federal government, and he’s seen more than his fair share of employee conflicts.

“All workplaces have employee conflicts,” Huff says. “What sets them apart from one another is how they deal with it, and frankly whether they deal with it at all. When they do confront it, too many organizations and people leaders simply focus on the issue at hand. They go running to HR to apply Band-Aid solutions without addressing the core issues or cultural deficiencies driving the conflicts.”

To go beyond that surface treatment of employee conflicts and address the root causes, Huff provides the following seven strategies:

  1. Know the history. There is nothing worse than a new boss coming in and making rash decisions about employees without knowing the background and history of the team. Take your time to familiarize yourself with the unique personalities on the team. Don’t make assumptions based on first impressions or hearsay. In short, be patient and listen.

    “People leaders need to do their homework on the people they are leading before taking action,” Huff says. “Talk to employees and find out what’s been working well, and what hasn’t been working so well with the group. Be diplomatic and listen carefully for the nuances that point to what is driving conflicts among the team. Then, and only then, should you think about addressing the issue.”

  2. Define the “why.” So often employee conflicts are bred in a climate where people have differing visions of what they are all working toward. Or worse yet, they have no idea what the vision is! That is why it is critical to clearly establish the “why” for the team. Make it crystal clear what the goals are for the department or organization, and ensure that everyone understands and is ideally on board. When everyone is marching toward one, agreed-upon destination, the group is inherently more likely to do so without bickering and disagreeing about the end objective.
  • Establish personal roles and a sense of ownership. Cascading down from organizational and department goals are individual roles and responsibilities. Everyone on a work team wants clarity about how they personally are contributing to the vision of the group, and more importantly, why their role matters. Give them that clarity, and emphasize the importance of their contribution. That can do wonders to mitigate feelings of uncertainty and being undervalued that can manifest as hostility toward co-workers.

    “We all want to know that we have a purpose, and that what we do matters,” Huff says. “When people feel valued, they feel pride. And when they feel pride in their work, they are less likely to act out with jealousy or vindictiveness toward co-workers. They need that ego boost. They also need to feel a sense of ownership over what they are responsible for.”

  • Defuse the situation. For all your best efforts in doing your homework, clarifying organization objectives, and establishing individual roles, conflicts between co-workers still can arise. What to do? Huff says it’s all about defusing the situation in a neutral, non-threatening manner.

    “Listen objectively and without bias to everyone involved,” Huff explains. “They need to know and truly believe you are not taking sides. Bring them into a neutral environment that is non-threatening. That might mean going for a walk outside or sitting down at a coffee shop. And then really listen. Let them vent, but encourage them to find common ground. As with any relationship, that sort of openness can lead to healing.”

  • Focus on strengths. When dealing with a difficult co-worker, conflicts can be quickly de-escalated simply by recognizing the strengths that person brings to the organization. Helping your employees to understand this can go a long way to easing tensions.

    “Advise your employee who is having trouble dealing with a colleague to ask for this colleague for help or an opinion in an area that you know is a strength for them,” Huff advises. “It might catch them off guard, but in a good way. You’d be amazed at how quickly that approach can resolve conflicts. Also, remind your employee to be sensitive to what else might be going on in the other person’s life. They may be going through a divorce, or they might have a child with a life-threatening illness. Co-workers should be aware that there may be more going on than meets the eye.”

  • Create a culture of openness and collaboration. So how can you avoid employee conflicts to begin with? It comes down to culture.

    “Right from the get-go, place a priority on creating a departmental or organization culture where people are free to talk and disagreements don’t fester,” Huff says. “You never want a situation where workers are afraid to raise their voice or to offer new ideas. That can breed frustration, which can often lead to conflict. In addition, when people don’t get credit for their hard work, that also breeds resentment. People want to demonstrate and have it be known how they are contributing. Give them that credit publically.”

  • Know when to turn to HR. Alas, despite your hard work and good intentions, some conflicts simply can’t be resolved without calling in human resources. It’s important to know when to say when, and recognize when conflicts have escalated to the point where HR is needed.

“There will always be co-worker conflicts; that’s certainly never going to go away,” Huff concludes. “But we have the power to lessen the frequency and intensity of those conflicts. By taking a strategic approach, they can be nipped in the bud, and harmony can be restored.”

Learn more about Capella University master’s degrees in business which help develop the critical thinking needed by business leaders to manage high-performing, collaborative teams.

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