A beautiful blue and yellow butterfly flaps its wings in the Brazilian rainforest. A week later, there’s a massive tornado in Texas. It’s the butterfly’s fault.
That’s the idea behind the butterfly effect. The tiniest air disturbance can build upon itself and cause a huge storm in an entirely different part of the world. As far as meteorology goes, the butterfly effect has been largely debunked. However, the idea behind it is valid. Small things can cause ripples that eventually have huge consequences.
We see this frequently at work. A piece of toast falls off the counter and somehow inspires an innovative employee to create a new product that leads to multi-million dollar profits. Unfortunately, small bad things can also have gigantic negative effects. A superficial conflict between two employees can quickly escalate and affect the entire team, even the entire company.
Preventing and eliminating conflicts should be a crucial business goal, especially in the midst of a presidential election year where employees are bound to talk about their political views. Here are several steps you can take now to keep employee conflicts to a minimum:
Make job expectations clear
One of the most common causes of conflict is work itself. Most employees strive to do their jobs well. It can be frustrating if they don’t know exactly what they’re expected to do for a certain project. Conflicts can particularly arise when one person on a team does not appear to be doing the correct tasks.
Make sure that managers clearly establish what employees are expected to do. Set expectations of what each member of a team should be working on. Even if the expectation is that the team should work out tasks amongst itself, if that is made clear, it can help prevent conflicts.
Establish clear guidelines on inappropriate behavior
Clear expectations are important not only for assigned tasks, but also for the behavior of people while they’re at work. Let your employees know what behavior will not be tolerated in the workplace.
For example, for the election year, you can choose to ban all discussion of politics, wearing of political t-shirts, or anything that may cause contention. Alternatively, you can choose to allow some political talk, but emphasize that all views must be tolerated and forbid personal attacks. Regardless of the choice you make on permitting political speech or any other behavior likely to cause conflict, be sure to communicate the guidelines clearly to employees.
Set standard methods to handle conflicts
Even with established guidelines on workplace expectations and intolerable behavior, conflicts will still arise. It’s crucial to have a system to manage conflicts. This includes ways of resolving conflicts as well as consequences for violating company guidelines.
Assign someone or a group of people to be the go-to when conflicts arise and encourage employees to talk to them before conflicts erupt into a gigantic problem. Depending on the size of the company, this could be HR or the department manager or another assigned neutral party.
Send the conflicting parties to mediation
The person or persons assigned to handle conflicts should be trained in mediation. Set a time for the employees involved in the conflict to air their grievances, whether separately or together. If the conflict is resolvable, the mediator can suggest solutions and also help the employees to work together to come up with a resolution that will be acceptable to all.
Unfortunately, not all conflicts can be fixed by a mediated discussion, particularly where employee behavior clearly violates established guidelines. Sometimes, the best way to prevent future conflicts is to show that actions have consequences. This may result in switching employees to other departments, demotions, or even termination. Ideally, conflicts can be resolved and everyone will be satisfied, but other times negative consequences are the best way to ensure a productive and cohesive workplace.
Workplaces require people with different personalities, experiences, and beliefs to function as a team. Diversity of thought is a wonderful way to promote innovation, but such difference inevitably lead to some conflicts. With established systems to resolve conflicts, it is easier to quickly resolve differences or prevent them altogether. This will give employees more time to work on those little ideas that pop into their heads when they slip on a banana peel or accidentally blow up their lunch in the company microwave.
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