Preventing Workplace Conflict: 3 Essential Strategies for Better Communication

Between demanding clients, tight deadlines and a never-ending barrage of emails, the contemporary workplace can feel like one fire drill after the next. Dealing with workplace conflict should not be another fire to put out. Unfortunately, even under the best of circumstances, different communication styles, expectations, and past experiences can lead to conflict. Add in the pressures of our 24/7 workday and it's no surprise when tensions rise and tempers flare.

Experts estimate that managers spend at least 25 percent of their time each day dealing with workplace conflict. Failing to resolve these conflicts can lead to a toxic work environment with low productivity and increased absenteeism. But what if these conflicts could be avoided in the first place? The right communication can help eliminate or minimize conflicts by clarifying expectations and preventing a simple misunderstanding from snowballing into a major problem.

Passive-Aggressive Coworkers: Get to the Root of the Problem

You know the type: it’s the colleague who says one thing in a meeting and then does another, constantly making snide remarks or just ignoring your presence. Then, when you ask to speak to her, she's all smiles and insists everything is fine, accusing you of overreacting. Dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker can be enough to send anyone over the edge. Of course, then you'll be the one who looks foolish in front of your boss.

How to communicate: Passive-aggressive coworkers may seem like they thrive off drama, but they're actually conflict-avoidant. They'd rather stew over a perceived problem than speak up about what's truly upsetting them. Open, constructive communication that gets to the root of the problem is key to diffusing this tension. For example, during periods of organizational change a coworker may exhibit passive-aggressive behaviors. Rather than be defensive, acknowledge your coworker’s concerns and show empathy. Then, work together towards a solution that delivers a win for everyone.

Unclear Project Deliverables or Performance Expectations: Don't Leave Employees Guessing

Are you a manager who likes your team to jump in and figure things out as they go? While this management style may give employees the freedom to be creative and innovative, it can also spark conflict due to unclear expectations. Each employee may have his or her own way of accomplishing a task that could conflict with other members of the team. Worse, employees may have overlapping job duties, triggering a workplace showdown that causes one employee to become hostile and territorial toward the other.

How to communicate: The first time a team is working together, provide clear guidelines to minimize process disagreements. This will keep the group focused on accomplishing its goals rather than arguing over which way is the right way. You don't have to micromanage team performance, but you should ensure everyone has a distinct role to play and understands their role. Meet with the team as a group and have each member verbalize back to you their role and goals, confirming there are no misunderstandings around who needs to accomplish what.

Sounding Abrupt over Email: Read Messages Aloud to Check Your Tone

Email is one of the biggest workplace stumbling blocks because it can be difficult to capture the right tone behind your words. A comment that might sound witty and humorous when delivered in a conversation could come off as snide or rude when sent via an email. Perhaps you think you're offering candid advice, but your coworker thinks you're implying he’s downright stupid. And while emojis may have a place in personal communication - clarifying when a comment is supposed to be funny, for example - including a winking smiley face in an email to your boss a could hurt your promotion chances.

How to communicate: Before hitting "send", re-read the email and consider how recipients may take the message. Does this align with your intention and your company's communication norms? If you're not sure, try reading the message aloud: does it sound abrupt or abrasive? If you're new to a company, ask a colleague to quickly spot-check the message. "I want Karen in Accounting to know I appreciate her report, but she missed a big figure. Does this sound constructive or condescending?"

Bottom Line

Minimizing workplace conflict starts with better communication. Listen to what your coworkers have to say, pay attention to body language and check your own tone. Small changes to your communication style can keep a conflict from escalating so the team can stay focused on what really matters: meeting the big deadline, keeping the client happy and succeeding together.


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