Cutting through conflict in your team

In a busy team, conflicts are often allowed to simmer just under the surface. It may be work but all relationships are personal. No-one likes to have difficult conversations, so often discontent is allowed to fester. It's often overlooked by bosses because they feel it fits in the too-hard basket. But there’s another way of looking at the issue.

“If you focus on the individual and not the problem, then you would just rather not talk to them and wish they would go away,” says Peter Mills, author of Don’t Fix me, Fix the Workplace. “To be satisfied in their jobs, your people need to know where they are heading, what their role is, how they are going to be measured and what their future is."

Fresh air is the greatest antiseptic, and as hard it may seem, it’s better to bring conflict to the surface than allow it to bubble destructively underneath.

Good, bad and ugly conflict

Some business owners even feel conflict can be good because it breeds competition. Well, there’s the right sort of conflict and and there’s the type that affects the business. Good conflict stimulates the team into coming up with the next great idea, but bad conflict is altogether more nasty. It may arise when team members are stressed, when relationships break down over a lack of a pay rise or promotion, when allegations of favouritism are made, or when someone is simply not pulling their weight. This sort of strife limits productivity, boosts absenteeism, can damage customer and supplier relations and is all-round bad for the business.

Conflict in small businesses can prevent effective collaboration and innovation


How to deal with conflict

Queensland government research shows 65 per cent of employee performance problems are the result of strained relationships, rather than lack of skill or motivation. Mills encourages business owners to isolate the root cause, rather than infantilise individuals for being disruptive. “People come to work to do a good job," he says. "They don’t turn up to argue and they don’t turn up thinking ‘I’m going to do a bad job today.”

He recommends bosses take a long hard look at the environment, regardless of the size of business. “I found that conflict usually occurs when people are unable to perform their work, or there are unclear expectations, or any expectations are not met. Business owners should question themselves in the first instance. When you realise there’s conflict between you and the team member or between team members, ask yourself, why this is occurring? Are they clear about what each of them was supposed to do.”

Determine whether the work was properly allocated, and whether there gaps in the roles. This is the starting point before you even look at the behaviour, which is an outcome from some sort of frustration. “If you don’t address that, the behaviour is likely to return,” notes Mills.

A healthy work environment

While there are always going to be disagreements, to keep your workplace free of ugly conflict you need to set the gold standard on how people should work together in a constructive way. It’s no good simply stating that you expect people to behave with honesty, integrity and with respect for others. You need to state how this behaviour should play out at work.

Mills believes that employers should model constructive behaviour and break it down to how it should look in the workplace. In the first instance make sure team members understand that the onus is on them to work together to solve problems when they arise. If that fails then they should come to you and you can clarify and if need be, provide back up resources. Clarify that it’s not acceptable to speak negatively about one another.

Effective inter-relationships are key because they lay the groundwork for building consensus when conflict does arise. “If you build a strong manager-team member working relationship, you can talk about almost anything," Mills says. "You have your discussion, whether it’s to say, 'Look, just don’t let it happen again' or you work out what should be done and whether changes need made.”

Building a strong connection with your small business staff will allow for open and honest communication


No pay rises for you

However well-grounded your workplace, there are prickly instances that will rile the most calm and centred employee, and they usually revolve around money and security.

“Pay gets back to a person’s sense of worth, says Mills. “I know organisations can’t always give pay rises, but it’s about being clear why and letting them know they will get a pay rise when it’s possible. But it’s not saying, ‘I can’t for you but I’m getting a big pay rise’.”

Lack of job security

Nothing unsettles a workplace, like retrenchment, not only for those being let go, but also for those who still have their jobs. “This is always difficult,” notes Mills. “People are always going to think, ‘Why was it me?’ So do it fairly, openly and transparently.”

This advice is also suitable for dealing with the employee who may be disgruntled when someone is brought into the business to perform a role they have coveted, a common scenario in a growing small business. “It needs to be explained to them what their future is," says Mills. "You may be able tell them what they to do to get to the next level, but there may be nothing they can do. They might complain and leave. Everyone may not be happy but you have been fair.”