The world would be a wonderful place if everyone got on with everyone else – all kittens and rainbows and cupcakes and rose-tinted spectacles! Unfortunately, although everyone loves kittens, not everyone gets on with everyone else. Conflict can arise for a number of reasons: in the world of business, it can often occur between colleagues, between businesses and customers, and between businesses and suppliers. It can be caused by a clash of personalities, an unresolved mistake or ongoing problem, or a misunderstanding caused by a breakdown in communication and, if left unchecked, conflict at work can have a negative impact on the psychological wellbeing of the individuals involved, as well as the wider workforce. Conflict can also affect productivity and potentially damage the reputation of the business if an unscrupulous customer or supplier decides to vent their frustrations (whether legitimate or not) on Social Media or a customer review site.
So, even if you want to scream and shout and possibly chuck something (or someone) out of the window, the best course of action to take when dealing with conflict in the workplace is to address the issue quickly and appropriately, and work to resolve the issue, if possible.
Dealing with Colleagues
Working in a confined office, day in, day out, with the same people can lead to friction, especially if you work with some ‘big personalities’! Avoiding potential ‘stressors’ is always a good way to prevent conflict before it even occurs – acknowledge that you can’t get on with everyone, and if you are feeling annoyed by a colleague or workplace situation (‘SOMEONE HAS FINISHED THE MILK!’), try taking a deep breath and allowing 5 minutes to pass before confronting the offending member of staff. By taking a step back, you should be able to avoid making a poorly thought through decision and speaking your mind before fully considering the consequences. If you still want to make your point after 5 minutes, chances are that you have a legitimate reason for your annoyance, and have carefully considered what you want to say (minus any swearing that you may have included 5 minutes before!).
When speaking to your colleague, try and do so in a private space, away from other workers. Try to remain calm and considered, as this helps to keep your colleague calm too, avoiding a potential escalation of the situation. Put your point across clearly and concisely, and give your colleague the opportunity to express their own thoughts on the situation too without interruption, even if you think they are talking a load of rubbish! And if you can’t come to an agreement, agree to disagree on the matter, and make it clear that you don’t want any negative feelings to affect your ongoing working relationship – you are both responsible and professional adults, after all! If the issue is more serious than a simple disagreement, that is, if your colleague is bullying or harassing another member of staff, customer or business contact, or if you have legitimate reason to suspect that they are involved in an unlawful activity, seek guidance from a senior colleague or member of HR. If you are the senior party, seek confidential and impartial advice from an external agency – for example, a solicitor specialising in employment law, or the Citizens Advice Bureau, who will signpost you to appropriate help.
Conflict with Clients/Suppliers
With clients or suppliers, ongoing disputes can have a negative impact on the business ‘bottom line’. A supplier may refuse to continue supplying you until an issue is resolved, or a customer may ‘bad mouth’ your business in anger, leading to a potential reduction in new customers because they have been scared off by the negative publicity. Once again, when dealing with conflict with customers or suppliers, it is important to remain calm, listen carefully to their concerns, and respond thoughtfully. But you also need to suggest a solution to resolve the problem – an idea addressed by the Mind Tools Editorial Team in their useful article ‘Dealing with Unhappy Customers’:
‘If you feel that you know what will make your client happy, tell her how you'd like to correct the situation. You could say, "I know you need these samples by tomorrow to show to your own customers. I will call our other clients to see if they have extras that they can spare, and, if they do, I'll drop them off at your offices no later than 5:00pm this evening."
If you're not sure you know what your client wants from you, or if they resist your proposed solution, then give her the power to resolve things. Ask her to identify what will make her happy. For instance, you could say, "If my solution doesn't work for you, I'd love to hear what will make you happy. If it's in my power I'll get it done, and if it's not possible, we can work on another solution together."’
If the conflict is down to one party not fulfilling their contractual obligations, you will need to seek legal advice before taking action, to ensure that you are ‘in the right’. Keep records of all of your interactions with the customer or supplier, and make sure any letters or emails to the customer or supplier are clear, coherent and correct so that if required, and the issue goes to court, you can refer to these documents with ease.
If you are self-employed, you also need to ensure that your Professional Indemnity Insurance, Public Liability Insurance (if required), and any other professional insurances or memberships are up-to-date. This will ensure that if you are taken to court by a disgruntled customer, or if you have to take a customer or supplier to court yourself, you are covered appropriately and can receive the full and correct financial and legal support that you are entitled to. Hopefully, it won’t get to that stage, and you will be able to resolve the issue directly with the customer or supplier in a calm and rational way – it’s just always best to be like Bear Grylls and prepare for every possible eventuality! Except when it comes to eating worms…. You don’t need to do that…
So take a deep breath and address conflict in your business head-on as soon as it crops up – your workplace will be a happier and healthier place without it – Good Luck!