Get down to the art of conquering conflict in the workplace – Part 1: When systems, processes and people don’t always align

Conflicts among individuals in the workplace are rife and varied

Conflicts among individuals in the workplace are rife and varied and can range from petty arguments such as fighting over who is first to get to use the printer to matters of major mistrust and sometimes even breech of corporate ethics.  

In this two-part article we cover some of the common types of conflict situations that arise in the workplace and consider appropriate measures that can be taken to reach a resolution before things get out of hand.

Learning how to manage conflict is a critical core competency to maintain a positive working environment

In any workplace dynamic, conflict is an inevitable situation.  Conflict can arise between co-workers, managers and their subordinates and even with external stakeholders such as suppliers and customers.  Learning how to manage conflict to maintain a positive working environment is a critical core competency that not only involves tact and decorum but comes with a generous dollop of emotional intelligence too.

Many types of conflict situations arise in the workplace.  Let us now examine a few case scenarios involving systems, people and processes, and how these can effectively be managed to maintain a stable working environment.

Typical conflict scenario 1 – I want to curse the person who invented the open plan office

I am in a good mood while driving to work early one morning. The radio is playing in the car and the traffic isn’t as heavy as it usually is.  I sing along to some of my favourite songs as I ponder over my deadlines and mentally tick all the boxes on my project plan. Still in a good mood, when I reach my work station I am about to check my emails when I am suddenly bombarded by a crowd of people who are waiting to go into a meeting and making one heck of a noise as they loiter around my desk. 

Completely oblivious to the fact that I need to make a phone call, members of the crowd continue chatting and arguing and the general din is giving me a headache.  Bang goes my good mood as I find myself becoming completely irritated and I realise that now more than ever I want to curse the person who invented the open plan office.

When conflicts arise it is the small things that get us down

Some things cannot be changed, like an open plan office.  Like it or not, when we are sharing work space with others, we are bound to get on top of each other now and then and often, when conflicts arise, it is the small things that get us down.   The key in this instance is respect. When working in an open plan office make a conscious effort to keep noise levels down where possible and refrain from hovering around other people’s work stations.  Most open plan offices have breakaway rooms and demarcated areas often called ‘cuddle puddles’ where meetings and discussions can be held without disrupting others.  

Typical conflict scenario 2 – Diversity and discrimination: I get given the dirty work because I am different

Discrimination as a result of diversity is largely perception based and revolves around unnecessary prejudices and misunderstandings of the values, customs and norms and mores that ‘different’ others ascribe to.  For instance, a ‘minority’ employee may consistently be given the ‘dirty work’ or excluded from certain group activities. The remedy here would involve promoting team cohesiveness with the manager of the team reallocating tasks in a more equitable manner to ensure fair measures and to engage in team building interventions that break down cultural and other kinds of barriers.

Typical conflict scenario 3 – Dissention within the ranks: managers versus subordinates

It can be potentially nerve-wracking when dissention within the ranks occurs between managers and subordinates.  One must not make the mistake of assuming that the manager is always right and the subordinate is always wrong. Neither does being in a leadership position automatically absolve the manager from incidents of bad behaviour.  Hence, when such incidents go unchecked, this leads to disastrous effects on the morale of employees as well as engendering suspicion and mistrust of the manager concerned, whereby employees feel that their manager is always ‘gunning for them’.  This is where senior management needs to get involved in making sure that the management tiers beneath them are behaving in a fair and equitable manner, and are not simply pulling rank and bullying their subordinates. This is also where managers need to be excellent negotiators.

Typical conflict scenario 4 – My performance appraisal was a disaster:  I have moved departments twice within the past six months and my new manager has no idea what I am capable of 

The past six months had been difficult.  Structural changes within my organisation meant that I moved departments twice and fell under three different managers.  My KPAs were not clear from one move to the next and my new manager now has no idea of what my capabilities are and how my performance measures up against the new business objectives that have been put in place.  As a result, my performance appraisal is a disaster. I feel let down, unappreciated and I don’t know which way to turn. Here, the remedy would be to ensure that when staff are moved around as a result of organisational restructuring, that their track record is properly maintained and that they are made to feel welcome and appreciated by their new teams and managers.   

Protecting the bottomline

Because conflict can arise at any given point in time and for many different reasons, one must be vigilant in maintaining a healthy balance between what is considered normal conflict and situations that are toxic and harmful to the business.  Given the latter situation, when toxicity occurs don’t sweep things under the carpet in the hope that they will not be discovered. If not properly rooted out, the bottom line inevitably suffers.  

Helen Fenton:  Senior Analyst, Business Optimization Training Institute (BOTi) –

Get down to the art of conquering conflict in the workplace – Part 1: When systems, processes and people don’t always align 1

Business Optimization Training Institute (BOTI) is a Johannesburg based, Level 1 BBBEE business.  As a Services and MICT SETA accredited company, we have trained thousands of individuals from over 650 companies and our extensive course offering consists of Short Courses, Soft Skills Training and Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) Learnership Programs.  In addition, we offer bespoke training programs designed to cater to specific business needs.  Our training courses are focused on knowledge and skills transfer and we pride ourselves in being able to provide training anytime, anywhere across South Africa.


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