Anyone in a workplace knows it can take a lot of communication and creativity to resolve a conflict.
And combat between co-workers can be a huge time waster, even for those indirectly involved. In a 2011 survey developed by staffing service Accountemps, human resource professionals estimated they spent an average of 18 percent of their time resolving conflicts between employees. The survey included telephone interviews with more than 1,000 senior managers at companies with 20 or more employees.
That number may even be a little low, says Kenneth Cloke, co-author of "Resolving Conflicts at Work: Ten Strategies for Everyone on the Job" (Jossey-Bass, 2011).
"In my experience, [most] managers and HR people place a much higher figure on the time they spend in conflicts," Cloke says.
Conflict isn't always bad. Susan Shearouse, author of "Conflict 101: A Manager's Guide to Resolving Problems So Everyone Can Get Back to Work" (AMACOM, 2011), says much time at work is spent resolving conflicts because differences between people are inevitable. Workplaces without any productive conflict can be as destructive as those where conflict is out of control.
"Differences and disagreements are healthy. Digging into them helps us understand ideas and perspectives that can give us better solutions," she says.
But sometimes conflict evokes more combative responses, such as flaring tempers and fight-or-flight attitudes. Cloke says this can happen for a number of reasons, such as poor communication skills, prejudices, false and unmet expectations, a lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities and competition over scarce resources, among other things.
"Conflict is just something that isn't working for someone," Cloke explains. "In workplaces, it's often just the sound made by cracks in a system. Conflict therefore is an opportunity for improvement."
Managers can reduce harmful conflict from day one by establishing positive working relationships and work environment, where employees and supervisors trust and respect one another.
"Then when differences do arise, people will be willing to engage with one another to find solutions," Shearouse says.
Shearouse says trust and respect result from exemplifying three character qualities: reliability (being honest and following through), competence (doing good work and learning new things) and care (showing concern for the mission and goals of the organization). When managers exemplify these qualities and encourage employees to do the same, the workplace culture will grow to be one of more openness, positive communication and independent resolution.
Also, a manager should evaluate the current system and determine whether there are any cracks to be sealed. Think about how decisions are made. Are employees involved? Are they aware of areas in which they can provide input? Do they know what decision was made and why?
If conflict does arise, take time to address it well.
"Slow down and take time to understand what the disagreement is about," Shearouse says. "Then find a safe place to talk it through and listen."