As a manager, you may assume that all is well if you or your HR department aren’t receiving reports of interpersonal conflict between coworkers. But if your business has a company culture of conflict avoidance you may be allowing a toxic workplace to fester without a chance for meaningful conflict resolution.
Problem: Your Employees Are Afraid of Voicing Conflict
We have all been afraid of rocking the boat at work. You may have worried that disagreement or concerns over a toxic workplace would work against your next promotion, labeling you as “difficult,” “opinionated” or a “troublemaker.”
Conflict avoidance is a coping technique designed to minimize fear. If it becomes part of office culture, your workforce will be focused on their own needs instead of what is best for the business. If employees are afraid their big idea will be shot down, they are less likely to bring it up in a brainstorming session. That can make creativity and innovation difficult.
Solution: Make Space for Conflict Discussions
Make it clear to employees that disagreements aren’t firing offenses. Establish that it is okay to express their discomfort and resolve differences. Encourage employees to use a conflict discussion roadmap to plan out their discussion before going in, which will help separate facts from emotion and give everyone involved a chance to consider their positions and the reasons behind them. A sample conflict discussion roadmap could look like this:
- John identifies an issue and figures out an ideal solution before taking it to Jaina
- John states the issue and his proposed solution in one or two fact-based, non-emotional sentences
- Jaina addresses the issue and the proposed solution while John listens
- John and Jaina focus on the issues within the confrontation
- Either John or Jaina can ask for the conversation to be paused if they become emotional or need to consider their response
- Either John or Jaina can ask for a third person to facilitate the conversation and maintain focus
Problem: Your Supervisors Ignore Conflict
Supervisors can unintentionally create a toxic workplace by ignoring conflict and assuming employees will simply “handle it” themselves. However, when a supervisor avoids addressing conflict it doesn’t make the interpersonal differences go away. Instead it creates risks of:
- Loss of Communication
- Loss of Productivity
- Employee turnover
When a workplace becomes toxic and employees feel unheard, they will look elsewhere for work. Avoiding difficult conversations can be expensive for your company and cause you to lose your best talent.
Solution: Invite Open Communication and Proactive Mediation
Supervisors should be trained to encourage their teams to address differences and resolve tension. Where they notice coworkers avoiding one another or hard feelings they should find non-confrontational ways to ask if the employees need help resolving their differences.
One highly effective technique is mediation. Supervisors trained in mediation can bring the employees together and help them to express their feelings and create action-based solutions. Mediation should:
- Allow each party to express specific desired outcomes
- Identify and categorize obstacles
- Address any third parties who will be affected
- Brainstorm resolution options
- Create an action-based solution
Problem: Your Managers Use Ineffective Conflict Resolution Techniques
When managers use unhealthy or ineffective conflict resolution techniques, they can unintentionally worsen a toxic workplace culture. Those techniques could include blaming the employee reporting harassment or allowing emotions to steer the conversation. It could also mean negating or belittling an employee’s emotions. These tactics drive employees into conflict avoidance and create an undercurrent of toxicity.
Solution: Train Managers to Increase Emotional Intelligence
Emotions are a natural part of all conflict. Successful conflict resolution requires emotional intelligence. But most MBA programs don’t include a class on empathy. To foster healthy workplace relationships, you should be prepared to develop your managers’ emotional intelligence skills, helping them:
- Improve workplace communication
- Identify root causes of conflict
- Recognize and diffuse employees’ emotions
- Redirect conflict toward goal-oriented resolutions
The skills needed to cut through conflict avoidance and resolve a toxic workplace aren’t automatic. They require training, thoughtfulness, and intentional application. But if you model and train healthy conflict resolution, you can shift your workplace culture and boost your employees’ productivity and satisfaction.
David Stanislaw is an organizational development specialist with over 25 years’ experience helping leaders develop management skills. Through conflict resolution training and facilitation, David helps business owners dissolve workplace toxicity and resolve interoffice conflict. Contact us to meet with David and develop a plan to improve your company’s emotional intelligence.