The Impact of Unresolved Conflict at Work on Employees

Unresolved conflict in the workplace can have significant costs for organizations and employees. When conflict goes unaddressed, it often leads to lost productivity, lower morale, higher employee turnover, and even potential legal issues.

The High Costs of Unresolved Conflict at Work

Unresolved conflict tends to foster negative emotions like resentment, hostility, and anger between employees. This prevents effective communication and collaboration, resulting in employees wasting time avoiding each other or engaging in unproductive conflicts rather than working. Employees may also intentionally work slower or put less effort into their jobs. Studies estimate that managers spend around 25% of their time resolving workplace conflicts – time that could have been better spent on more productive tasks.

Unaddressed conflict also causes morale to suffer. Employees feel frustrated and dissatisfied when issues with co-workers or managers aren’t resolved. They may become withdrawn, stop participating in team activities, or call in sick more often. This deterioration in workplace relationships and lack of psychological safety makes it difficult for employees to thrive.

The accumulated negativity and stress of unresolved conflict often leads to higher employee turnover. Employees don’t want to continue working in an environment with frequent tensions and lack of open communication. The costs of recruiting, hiring, and training new employees are very high for organizations.

Finally, unresolved conflict that escalates or involves discrimination, harassment, or hostility directed at protected groups can result in lawsuits, damaged reputations, and large legal expenses. It’s far more strategic for companies to invest in conflict resolution upfront rather than incur these unnecessary costs down the line.

Employee Conflict Stat
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Why Conflict Goes Unresolved

Unresolved conflict in the workplace often comes down to a lack of proper communication and a tendency to avoid difficult conversations. Here are some of the main reasons conflict goes unresolved:

Lack of Communication

  • People don’t properly communicate their concerns. They may hint at issues without directly addressing problems.
  • Employees avoid communicating for fear of damaging relationships or disrupting group harmony.
  • Managers hesitate to be candid when giving critical feedback. This allows problems to fester.
  • No structures exist for open communication between teams or management.

Avoidance

  • It’s common to avoid confrontation and difficult interactions. People may ignore issues hoping they just go away.
  • Employees fear conflict escalation. By avoiding issues, they allow tensions to quietly build.
  • Managers can be conflict avoidant, failing to address issues between employees. This enables problems to worsen.

Power Imbalances

  • Employees may feel unsafe directly addressing conflict with a superior.
  • When there are power differences, the lower-ranking individual may not feel comfortable speaking openly.
  • Management must take care not to shut down employee concerns over misalignments.
  • Hierarchy can suppress the free flow of communication needed to resolve conflict.

The bottom line is unresolved conflict often stems from lack of candid communication, avoidance behaviors, and power imbalances that prevent surface issues from being adequately addressed.

The Damaging Effects of Unresolved Conflict

Unresolved conflict can have severe consequences for workplace culture and employee wellbeing. Studies have shown that allowing tensions to fester leads to reduced productivity, higher turnover rates, and other costs. Some key effects include:

Stress and Anxiety

Employees involved in ongoing conflict experience chronic stress that can manifest physically through headaches, fatigue, and stomach issues. The anxiety of facing someone they have unresolved issues with day after day takes a toll. People lose sleep preoccupied with the conflict, which impairs their ability to concentrate.

Damaged Relationships

With unaddressed conflict, communication often breaks down. People avoid each other or limit interactions. Trust erodes and collaboration suffers. Anger and resentment build up. Coworkers may become openly hostile or passive-aggressive. Interpersonal bonds become strained, sometimes irreparably.

Toxic Work Environment

Unresolved conflict has ripple effects across teams and departments. Tension is palpable and even employees not directly involved feel stressed. People withdraw, avoiding interaction to sidestep conflict. When conflict is allowed to fester, the work environment becomes toxic. Suspicion, hostility, and exclusion can become defining features of workplace culture. Innovation is stifled and performance declines.

The emotional and interpersonal consequences of unaddressed conflict create an unhealthy workplace for everyone. Poor communication and lack of trust from conflict lead to bottlenecks that disrupt operations. Effectively handling conflict is essential for maintaining a collaborative, innovative work environment.

How to Respond to Conflict at Work

When conflict arises, it’s important to address it promptly before tension escalates. Here are some tips for constructively responding to conflict in the workplace:

  • Address issues promptly. Don’t let problems fester – bring them up respectfully as soon as issues arise. The longer conflict goes unaddressed, the more damage it can do. Address matters quickly and directly to prevent escalation.

  • Listen without judgment. Let the other person speak without interruption. Seek to understand their perspective, not just your own. Listen to their reasons and feelings before responding.

  • Look for win-win solutions. Rather than seeing conflict as a zero-sum game, look for solutions where both sides’ needs are met. Identify shared interests and creative ways to satisfy mutual goals. Compromise where needed.

  • Speak respectfully. Express your own needs and concerns without attacking the other person. Use “I” statements rather than blaming “you” statements. Find common ground and focus on resolving the issue at hand.

  • Take a collaborative approach. Work together to address the problem, not against each other. Maintain a problem-solving mindset rather than a combative one.

  • Keep emotions under control. Express feelings professionally and avoid hurtful language. Take time to cool off if needed. Manage anger and frustration constructively.

  • Be understanding. Empathize with the other’s perspective. We all view issues through our own lens. Strive to be open-minded and flexible, not defensive or stubborn.

With patience and mutual effort, many workplace conflicts can be resolved cooperatively to restore a positive working relationship. The key is addressing issues promptly, communicating respectfully and aiming for win-win solutions.

Strategies to Resolve Workplace Conflict

When conflict arises in the workplace, it’s important to respond promptly and appropriately to prevent unnecessary escalation. Here are some strategies employees can use to resolve workplace conflicts:

Mediation

Mediation involves working with a neutral third party to come to a voluntary agreement. The mediator helps facilitate discussion, identify issues, generate solutions, and negotiate an outcome that is acceptable to all parties. Mediation provides a confidential, controlled setting where employees in conflict can have productive conversations. A professional workplace mediator can work with employees to resolve interpersonal issues, small group disagreements, and large-scale organizational disputes in a healthy, sustainable way.

Finding Common Ground

Even when conflict seems intractable, there is often some common ground to be found. Employees should make an effort to understand each other’s perspectives, communicate their own viewpoint clearly, and look for shared goals or principles. Identifying areas of agreement can help temper emotions, open communication, and lead to collaborative solutions. Conceding on some points and reaching compromises can help move the conflict toward resolution.

Compromise

Compromise requires that all parties in the conflict give up something and meet somewhere in the middle. This involves a willingness to make concessions in order to create a win-win scenario. Compromise may mean agreeing to a solution that is not ideal for either party, but that addresses the main concerns in a reasonable way. For a compromise to be sustainable, it’s essential that it be perceived as fair and all parties remain committed to the agreement. With compromise, both sides take responsibility for resolution.

When to Involve Management in Conflict Resolution

While employees should try to resolve minor disputes independently, there are times when it is appropriate or even necessary to involve management in the conflict resolution process.

Issues Between Supervisor and Employee

If an employee is having significant conflict with their direct supervisor that is not easily resolved, they may need to reach out to Human Resources or a higher level manager. Bringing in a neutral third party can help mediate the dispute and find solutions. Employees should document details of issues with their supervisor, like being treated unfairly, inappropriate comments, or feeling threatened. With documentation, management can better investigate and intervene.

Legal Concerns

Any issues involving potential discrimination, harassment, safety concerns, violence, or other legal matters warrant immediate management intervention. Not only is it management’s duty to protect employees, unresolved conflicts of this nature are legal liabilities. Employees should report unlawful or unethical behavior by supervisors or coworkers to HR.

Ongoing Conflict

When a dispute between employees continues over an extended time without progress, management involvement is prudent. Unresolved conflict can fester and spread negativity in the workplace. Management can implement conflict resolution procedures or disciplinary actions on individuals unwilling to find solutions. They may mandate mediation or reassign employees if needed to defuse persistent conflicts.

Rather than letting conflict spiral at the expense of morale and productivity, employees should view management as partners in creating a harmonious workplace culture. In certain circumstances, seeking managerial guidance is essential to reaching resolutions and maintaining a professional environment.

Creating a Conflict Resolution Policy

A clear conflict resolution policy is essential for effectively managing disputes in the workplace. The policy should outline specific procedures and define key roles and responsibilities. Here are some guidelines for creating an effective policy:

  • Outline step-by-step procedures. The policy should lay out a process for employees to follow when a conflict arises. This includes how to initially report the dispute, who to notify, timelines for resolution, and the sequence of steps involved in addressing the issue.

  • Define roles and responsibilities. The policy should designate who is responsible for resolving different types of conflicts. For example, managers and HR may handle disputes between employees, while executive leadership deals with conflicts involving managers.

  • Establish guidelines for mediation. If mediation is used, explain when it will be required, who will serve as mediator, and how the process will work. Outline expectations for confidentiality as well.

  • Specify consequences for policy violations. Make it clear what will happen if employees do not adhere to the outlined policy and procedures for conflict resolution.

  • Encourage informal resolution first. The policy can suggest trying to resolve minor disputes one-on-one or with a supervisor before pursuing formal procedures.

  • Allow flexibility when appropriate. While the policy should establish firm guidelines, there can be some flexibility in how each case is handled based on the circumstances.

  • Set timelines for resolution. Include clear deadlines for when each step in the conflict resolution process should be completed to avoid delays.

  • Outline record keeping protocols. Explain how documentation and notes related to the dispute should be maintained for reference.

  • Review and update regularly. Set a timeline for evaluating and revising the policy to keep it current and relevant. Solicit feedback from employees.

A clear, detailed conflict resolution policy empowers employees to address issues early before they escalate. It also provides consistent standards and methods for handling disputes. Regular policy reviews and updates help refine the process.

Promoting a Culture of Open Communication

Creating an open communication environment where employees feel safe to express concerns is critical for allowing conflicts to surface before festering. Some ways managers can promote open communication include:

  • Foster an environment of trust and psychological safety. Employees need to feel their perspectives are valued and they won’t face retaliation for raising issues. Managers should make themselves approachable, be open-minded listeners, and reassure employees their input is important.

  • Provide conflict resolution training. Teach employees constructive ways to frame issues, listen, communicate needs, and problem solve. Role playing exercises can help prepare them to engage skillfully when conflicts arise.

  • Encourage direct but thoughtful discussion. Make it clear that avoiding difficult conversations often makes things worse. Guide employees to express disagreements respectfully and focus on understanding the other perspective. Discourage sweeping problems under the rug.

  • Reinforce speaking up. When employees raise tough issues, commend them for having courage to voice concerns so they can be addressed. Avoid scolding them for rocking the boat.

  • Lead by example. Model openness yourself by soliciting input, admitting mistakes, and constructively working through disagreements. Your behavior sets the tone for the whole organization.

Creating an organizational culture centered on candid but caring communication will empower employees to initiate resolution before conflicts spiral out of control.

Being Proactive About Conflict

Being proactive and addressing issues early is one of the best ways to prevent and resolve conflict in the workplace. Here are some tips:

  • Address issues early on – Don’t let problems fester. Bring up issues respectfully and in a timely manner before they have a chance to intensify. The earlier a conflict is addressed, the easier it will be to resolve.

  • Provide support resources – Make sure employees are aware of resources available to help manage conflict, such as coaching, mediation, anonymous reporting channels, and training. Providing support early can prevent conflicts from escalating.

  • Check in regularly – Managers should have regular one-on-one meetings with employees to touch base on any issues and provide mentoring. Employees may be more likely to voice concerns about conflicts earlier if they have frequent contact with managers. Checking in also shows employees that leadership cares.

Being proactive helps create a culture where speaking up about issues is normalized. It demonstrates that conflict can be handled constructively. With early intervention and the right resources, many workplace conflicts can be resolved or avoided altogether.

When to Seek External Help

Persistent unresolved conflict between employees can take a major toll on productivity, morale, and the bottom line. If open communication, mediation, and internal resources don’t resolve the issue, it may be time to seek outside help. Here are some signs it’s time to bring in an external mediator or consultant:

  • The conflict has dragged on for weeks or months with no resolution in sight. Attempts to communicate have failed and tensions continue to escalate.
  • One or both employees refuse to compromise or work towards a solution. They remain stubbornly entrenched in their own positions.
  • Managers have tried unsuccessfully to mediate or resolve the situation. The employees involved do not feel their manager can be unbiased.
  • There are concerns the conflict may lead to retaliation, violence, or termination if left unaddressed.
  • Legal action has been threatened or an employee has filed a formal complaint with HR. An external investigator may need to be brought in.
  • The conflict is causing high turnover, plummeting productivity, or other major losses for the company. An objective third party may help resolve the situation.

In scenarios like these, it’s best to promptly bring in an outside mediator or conflict resolution specialist. They can provide unbiased guidance to help resolve the dispute. Seeking external support shows an employer takes the situation seriously. And it prevents conflicts from spiraling into larger legal or organizational problems down the road. Persistent conflict benefits no one – bringing in the right outside help can get a troubled workplace back on track.

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