Defuse co-worker disputes the right way

employee disputeOffice drama and workplace disagreements are an unavoidable aspect of the modern workplace: When workers from varied backgrounds, skill sets, value systems and personalities are forced to collaborate and share space for more than 40 hours a week, a little conflict is natural.

To some extent, differences of opinion can lead to better outcomes: Resolving conflict inherently requires that each party have a cohesive understanding of the issue at hand to advocate for their points of view. Yet, there’s a fine line between productive disputes and issues that derail performance. When managers leave the latter to fester, the best result is a tense work environment. At worst, it can lead to legitimate bullying behavior.

Here are some tips to help you determine if office conflict is clouding your team’s culture, and when to involve yourself in co-worker disputes.

Establish a culture of constant communication. As Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice president of engineering explains in a Harvard Business Review article, workplace conflict often stems from a lack of transparency from leadership. When employees don’t understand the larger corporate agenda or priorities for projects in which they’re involved, disagreement about the common objective expected by management can arise. It may look like office drama, but the problem isn’t really among the employees; it’s the lack of clear direction from management.

Managers must communicate consistently with all employees to ensure that corporate objectives are understood, and to proactively prevent conflict that arises from misunderstanding of the big picture. When you have one-on-one meetings, ask about the interpersonal tone of projects and teamwork:

  • When employees review their weekly project list, ask who they have been in close working relationships on projects thus far. How do they feel about the interaction, and how it could be improved upon?
  • Ask about hurdles employees face on each particular project, and why. Parikh suggests questions like “What do you mean by that?” or “Can you tell me about the specifics of the situation?” to dig deeper into potential root causes of conflict.

Spend time observing. Employees’ actions can signal when conflict has moved beyond professional disagreements, and into personal territory. Schedule time in your week to observe how your team interacts. If a group of five employees goes out to lunch and frequently leaves one person behind, watch for continued red flags. If you observe an imbalance in office relationships, get involved and ask employees outright for an explanation. If the issue is simply that employees aren’t friendly outside of work, but can interact professionally, the conflict may be harmless. If you pick up on signals of cliques, a pack mentality, or intentional exclusion, however, intervene.

Take note of repeating patterns. Facebook proactively minimizes office politics by asking questions of all interview candidates that gauge their likelihood to work peacefully with others for a shared goal. “Successful candidates should clearly demonstrate that their priorities are company, team, and self — in that order,” writes Parikh. Take the same approach to when asking employees to explain heated work situations or issues.

Employees who consistently blame others for problems, or are frequently involved in office drama may require that you involve human resources. It may sound harsh, but you will need documentation of problem behavior and the specific steps you took to amend the issue before you can let an employee go for destructive conflict, if it proves necessary.

Be a facilitator, not a babysitter. When you do spot conflicts that require your intervention, make your expectations for your staff clear: Disagreements are to be resolved professionally, through rational conversation. While the experts at the Society of Human Resources Management say it’s beneficial for management to attend meetings between feuding co-workers, your role is to keep the conversation productive. Professionals find a way to work together. Make it clear to both employees that the onus is ultimately on them to solve their conflict. Failure to cooperatively solve the issue is on par with not performing a specific job duty.