Conflict between employees may result in unnecessary stress and unproductivity and could even lead to physical harm. It is, therefore, important for every manager to be equipped to manage employee conflict.

By retaining employees over the long term, companies can increase productivity and generate more profits for the company. Matt Dodaro, thought leader at Enterprise Software and InsureTech in the United States (US), notes that a third of new hires quit after six months with the same number knowing whether they would stay at a company within their first week.

“Some 32 percent of employers say they expect employees to job-hop,” Dodaro says. Jared Lafitte, in his article for Forbes, explains that the culture of a company has the biggest influence on the retention of employees.

He notes: “A healthy culture makes people feel connected, motivated and focused. An unhealthy culture, on the other hand, creates tension, a lack of clarity and disillusionment.” Even if the culture of an organisation is healthy and inspires its workers, the interpersonal relationships at the office could greatly impact the retention of quality employees.

Reche Naidoo, management consultant and senior analyst at Accenture, states: “It is inevitable that individuals who work together for several hours a day will experience conflicts in their relationships. These conflicts can lead to decreased productivity and reduced satisfaction in the workplace.”

It is, therefore, important to have the correct management approaches or systems in place to ensure that the conflict doesn’t escalate. First, it is important to understand and be able to identify the various areas of conflict. David Wilkinson wrote for the Oxford Review about the four main areas of job conflict based on a study published in the Isan Red Crescent Medical Journal.

The first area of conflict is role interference or conflict.This occurs when people have multiple roles that don’t fully align; employees have to achieve their different goals concurrently; there is not enough time for the employee to fulfil all their roles; and when the employee feels there is an imbalance in the roles they are expected to play.

Role ambiguity can also cause conflict as an employee may be unclear about what is expected and when; what the boundaries are; and when management is required to step in to assist with making decisions.

Wilkinson notes: “There is a lack of clarity about which decisions are the responsibility of the employee and which aren’t. Part of this conflict also comes from a sense of having limited authority to make decisions.”

Conflicting expectations between clients, employees, management and different departments can cause conflict especially if the leaders are not available (or able) to reconcile the different expectations. This relates to the goals set for projects, but also translates into work behaviour expectations.

“This happens, for example, where a colleague is a workaholic and constantly stays behind, working late and creating the perceived expectation and pressure to conform to this standard,” says Wilkinson.

Forced role engagement is the final area of conflict and occurs when there is inadequate staffing and employees are forced to fill in for others.

“Looking at these categories of conflict in the working environment, they appear to be largely down to the management. Recognising the issues and the effects of working conditions, like burn-out, intention to leave and lowering of morale, would be a good first step,” Wilkinson adds.

While it could be easy to address some or all of these challenges, the interpersonal conflict and possible resentment caused between employees also need to be addressed.

When conflict arises, it is advisable for management to sit down with the employees involved and have a calm, open discussion. An employer should listen to the concerns of their employees.

Robert Thomas, employee and community relations manager at Hearthside Food Solutions, points to a long-term, ongoing mentorship programme as a great way to assist with managing employees and addressing conflict.

“As per a 2012 Deloitte Research Brief, retention is 25 percent higher for employees who have engaged in company-sponsored mentoring,” he explains. With a mentorship programme, a close relationship is formed between an employee and manager. This also creates a safe environment for employees to raise issues, including conflicts.

Walter Orechwa, founder of UnionProof – a learning platform to assist companies in avoiding union culture – echoes this idea. He feels that giving employees access to decision-makers in a company improves employee relations.

“Follow the lead of Tim Cook or L’Oreal Group chairman and CEO Jean-Paul Agon by eating breakfast or lunch with employees in the cafeteria or break room. This small act goes a long way in convincing people that management truly cares about employees, does not view itself as superior, and encourages open communication,” he says.

This is not always possible for senior management, but it might be worth implementing a friendlier relationship between the employees and their site or floor manager.

Through a mentorship programme, managers will be able to provide employees with the skills to manage conflict and a direct avenue to management to discuss concerns, while managers will remain informed about any possible conflict that arises.

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