Personality clashes create a bad atmosphere at work and often impact on motivation and productivity. Rachel Miller finds out how business owners and managers can use mediation techniques to help resolve conflict and rebuild staff relationships
When two people don't get on at work, the atmosphere can quickly sour and productivity can plummet. Outright hostility is usually hidden but it can show itself in passive aggressive behaviour such as stonewalling and procrastination.
For managers and business owners, problems between their employees are one of the most unpleasant and difficult things they have to deal with.
And yet conflict at work is incredibly common. Research by the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, has found that four in ten people say they've had problems with their colleagues.
The most serious issues, such as bullying or discrimination, are relatively rare; it's the personality clash that causes most of the problems, according to the CIPD report, Getting under the skin of workplace conflict.
According to the CIPD poll, workers say the two biggest issues they face are differences in personality or working style (cited by 44%) and individual competence or performance (cited by 33%).
Employees that feel resentful or aggrieved usually find it hard to disguise their feelings; their motivation and productivity suffers and the conflict can affect others in the team.
In a small firm, the impact may be even more pronounced. The good news, however, is that small businesses tend to handle these problems better than bigger firms, according to Jonny Gifford, author of the CIPD report. He says: "A small business owner is likely to want to clear the air straight away and talk to those involved. Problems often get nipped in the bud more quickly and more informally."
Certainly, while formal grievance processes have their place, they are not the best way to sort out these kinds of personality clashes. But managers should not ignore the problem either; otherwise things fester and are more likely to escalate.
Alison Love is the author of The Manager's Guide to Mediating Conflict. After leaving her career as an employment lawyer she became a professional mediator and says "There's a far better chance of mediation working if you use it at an early stage."
Why don't staff get on?
What are the usual reasons for conflict? "At their core, they are all very similar," says Love. "They are usually around miscommunications, misunderstanding and different styles of communicating or working. And people can have misguided assumptions about their colleagues' intentions."
Email doesn't help she says. "People often use email more when things are going wrong. You need to invest time in face-to-face conversations."
Change is another catalyst for conflict, she adds. "People are often unhappy when there has been a change in line management; perhaps someone who was previously a peer has become a new manager. Employees are often used to a particular situation and find it hard to adapt to change."
The goal of mediation, says Love, "is to establish a dialogue between individuals so they can better understand each other and ultimately restore the relationship."
The role of the line manager
Dealing with conflict - and avoiding it in the first place - invariably comes down to the line manager, says Love. First and foremost, the worst thing a manager can do is to ignore a toxic relationship within the business.
"The role of the line manager is absolutely key," she says. “Training can help managers to spot problems and develop a better understanding of how to intervene to resolve the conflict."
But many managers don't want to overstep the mark by getting too involved. "If you see that someone is upset then check in with them and ask if they need help trying to resolve the situation," suggests Love. "Ask them what have they tried to do about it and give them a bit of coaching. If they are saying they want an opportunity to try and resolve the problem themselves then let them but check back to see how they have done."
But if things carry on, says Love, a manager may need to become more involved. "Speak to the individuals first and then very quickly set up a dialogue."
Resolution can take time, warns Love. "I've seen management try to rush through a solution and they just made it worse. They didn't give the employees enough time to feel listened to and understood and then feel safe to open up and see each other's point of view."
It's a delicate process, she says. "What's important is not what two people are arguing about; that's just the tip of the iceberg. What is important is what is underneath, for example, recognition or saving face."
Managers need two core skills to be able to facilitate conflict resolution, says Love. "One of the most important skills is empathetic listening, the ability to truly listen without jumping in. The other is the ability to reflect things back to people using positive reframing," she says.
"For example, you will often hear a negative statement like 'He never listens to anything I say!' The reframing might be 'It is important to you that he understands what you are saying.' So you have acknowledged the problem, but given it a positive emphasis. It helps both parties to hear messages in a different way."
How can you avoid conflict in the first place? "There needs to be room for healthy challenge in the workplace so things get aired; If staff are fearful about raising issues, then problems get bottled up."
Management style is also crucial, she adds. "The more old-fashioned command and control style of management can cause clashes. It's much healthier to empower and motivate people by setting objectives and then letting people do things their own way."