Any workplace is a tiny little individual microcosm. And like all microcosms it comes with its unique combination of inhabitants, rules, and culture. And no matter how nice it would be if everyone got along with one another it’s inevitable that, despite your best efforts and great company culture, fallings out and disagreements can, and do, happen.
And while a constructive debate over how to perform certain tasks or how to approach projects can be healthy and give everyone involved the opportunity to express their opinion, if your employees are more prone to breaking out the conflict and locking horns, it might just be time to do something about it!
Full blown arguments in the workplace are to be avoided at all costs; they’re usually not constructive and you can end up with disgruntled employees, and team members feeling browbeaten - or worse, bullied. And they create an unpleasant atmosphere that isn’t conducive to productivity OR employee retention. But the good news is there are ways that, as a manager or someone in Human Resources, you can encourage your little microcosm to be a place where disagreement is fine - providing it's positive and constructive.
What to do when your employees won't stop arguing
So just how do you handle conflict and clashes in the workplace - in a healthy way?
It’s all about clear communication and setting boundaries. And believe it or not, it doesn’t have to be a huge headache for the HR Department!
It is entirely possible to set the scene for a more constructive form of disagreement. For example, if you’ve noticed, or had it brought to your attention, that certain colleagues are constantly butting heads, it could be time to step in and provide the voice of reason. (And subtly remind the employees in question that shouting is not the way you resolve issues in your particular workplace. More on that in a moment.) A firm but polite query such as “Is there anything I can help you guys with? What seems to be the problem?” will provide both parties with an opportunity to take stock and present their sides of the argument. Having you, as a third party, step in should help everyone involved breathe for a moment and, hopefully, gain a little bit of insight into the problem.
Include guidelines for positive debate in your new hire checklist
First of all you need to let your employees know what is, and what isn’t, acceptable when it comes to workplace conduct surrounding disagreements. In an ideal world no one would cross boundaries or raise their voice and yell at a colleague. But as we all know, we don’t live in an ideal world.
Therefore, lay out your expectations surrounding respectful and productive conflict resolution so that new hires know what to expect, and that you have something to fall back on and refer to in the event that a discussion becomes (over) heated and the employees involved need to be spoken to about their conduct. Obviously these expectations need to be communicated to your new starters and existing employees.
After all, there’s no use writing guidelines and filing them away in a folder on your computer or in a dusty manual left on a forgotten shelf deep in the recesses of the HR office. If you’ve implemented a new hire checklist that you run through as part of your onboarding process, this is the perfect place for you to outline what will, and will not, fly!
And you don’t need to write page upon page either. All your employee handbook needs to include is a brief section on workplace communication.
It goes without saying that your guidelines need to be reasonable. The last thing you want to do (or be accused of) is of stifling employee speech, but laying out what you as a company expect in terms of civility, how to speak to people, and how to give feedback and constructive criticism will go a long way to establishing the basis for a fair and inclusive company culture.
The clear communication domino effect
So just why are some of your employees seemingly incapable of having a civilized debate when it comes to deciding which prospective logo designs to send to that client, or what the sales targets should be for the coming quarter?
Well the fact is some people just aren’t all that great at getting their point across without blowing up. But as a company you can do your best to encourage better ways to communicate. And this is where you need to lead by example.
For when your lines of communication are open and your employees know what is expected of them, both in their roles and as an employee of your company, you can help foster a more positive attitude and environment.
It’s the domino effect, and this really needs to come from the top: from your employee handbook, sure, but also from everyone from your Managing Director to your managers to your team leaders. It also helps to check in with your people on a regular, or at least semi-regular, basis. And that includes all of your employees - including the ones who work remotely.
Providing feedback (and asking for it), and making sure people are okay will help keep the channels of communication open, ensure people are engaged and feel valued - and also allow you to put out any little fires that might have flared up due to poor communication and misunderstandings.
And in return, that will go a long way towards helping nip any potential disagreements in the bud before they have a chance to manifest themselves.
Why you need to tackle the issue of workplace conflict
There are any number of reasons why negative conflict and workplace clashes should be avoided. These are just some of them:
- That awesome company culture you’ve spent so long cultivating can take a real hit if people are constantly at each other’s throats
- Your business will get a reputation for being a toxic place to work - meaning you’ll have less top talent applying for your vacancies
- And talking of vacancies...you’ll have more of them to fill if people are constantly surrounded by rows and aggression, even if they’re not directly involved
- Your employees’ productivity will start to falter too, especially if decisions aren’t being clearly communicated due to one party being in disagreement. Plus let’s not forget that having people going at one another in the office is only going to lead to a downing of tools (plus extended ‘water cooler breaks’) as everyone else gets involved on the periphery.
- Employees who are constantly surrounded by ill-feeling and arguments are also more likely to be stressed - and that could result in a surge in sick days and duvet days.
- Plus it goes without saying that stressed employees will be more likely to fly off the handle or be argumentative. It’s a vicious circle and one that you really want to avoid at all costs.
- Finally let’s not forget your customers. Whether you’re unfortunate enough to have a client witness a hot-headed exchange of words between your staff, or a project is delayed due to in-house fighting, the upshot is...this isn’t good.
Handling workplace clashes and disputes: conclusion
We’ve all heard it a million times before: your people are your business’s biggest asset. It’s a cliché because there’s truth in it. But for this particular asset to be worth anything, you need your employees to work together as a cohesive whole.
Yes you want diversity: not just in the people you hire, but also in their ideas and viewpoints. If everyone agreed upon everything and no one had anything new to input, where would the vision, value and dynamism that keeps your company one step ahead of the competition be?
You need challenge and creativity but what you don’t want is people pulling in entirely different directions - and then blowing up about it! So set out your guidelines, keep your lines of communication open, check in on employees to ascertain their stress levels and you should be one step closer to that harmonious microcosm so many workplaces can only dream of.