Managing anger and conflict in the workplace

Workplace violence and sexual harassment typically receive more media attention than anger and hostility, but these very human reactions often manifest themselves in less dramatic ways that can still have a significantly negative impact on a business. Insidious by nature, personal aggression or the failure to deal effectively with conflict at work can contribute toward an unhealthy work environment marked by poor communication, sagging morale, excessive employee absenteeism or turnover, and customer service problems.

Business owners and managers unable to control their own anger or frustration will likely find that the business suffers. Likewise, organizations that fail to recognize and deal effectively with workplace conflict or anger may end up with serious problems. Even if you believe your company features a positive work environment and staff that enjoys their jobs and relates to one another in a professional manner, conflict is certain to arise from time to time. One employee who lashes out inappropriately can cause a decline in a company’s general morale, can cause friction with colleagues, and may cause enough distraction that productivity declines or safety is compromised. And the impact on customer service, your organization’s lifeblood, can be dramatic.

Recognizing potential conflict

With so many factors that can contribute to workplace anger and frustration, how do you create the healthiest possible work environment?  It begins with awareness and sensitivity to employee behavior, both verbal and nonverbal, so you can address the causes for that anger and hopefully head off an incident before it occurs.

Here are behaviors that may signal a need for intervention:

  • Sarcastic, irritable, or moody behavior
  • Apathetic and/or inconsistent work performance
  • Prone to making direct or veiled threats
  • Aggressive and antisocial behavior
  • Overreaction to company policies or performance appraisals
  • Touchy relationships with other workers
  • Obsessive involvement and/or emotional attachment to the job
  • Bullying

While these are all important behaviors to recognize, bullying is one of the most common and a real threat to business health and productivity. Sometimes bullying takes place between employees, but it often is most evident in supervisor-worker relationships, in which one person wields greater power. Bullying is not just the problem of an individual, however, but must be seen as a problem of the organization and its culture as a whole. Bullying can take many forms, from persistent, low-key intimidation to devious efforts to make a colleague appear professionally incompetent.

Office banter which is not really designed to offend is recognizably different from the persistent downgrading or undermining of a person by another, particularly if the other is in a position of relative power within the hierarchy. These menacing tactics can be difficult to identify and bring to light. It is very important, therefore, to have an avenue through which people feel free and safe to air their concerns about coworkers, supervisors and subordinates.

The only way to address bullying is to confront the bully and encourage him or her to change. Bullying behavior generally does not take place in a vacuum; other employees are usually aware of the situation, and they should be consulted. Finally, employers seeking to eliminate bullying behavior need to make it clear that anyone who is the victim of bullying tactics will receive their full support.

Putting out fires before they spread

Another common cause of workplace anger and hostility is peer conflict. These conflicts are usually caused by differences in personality or perception, moodiness, insensitivity, impatience, or sensitive emotional states such as jealousy, annoyance, and embarrassment. When these rivalries evolve into skirmishes or outbursts, conflict may damage those involved as well as others in the vicinity. Since work relies heavily on the ability of people to interact in a cooperative and harmonious fashion, conflict between employees represents a serious breakdown of the effective and healthy working relationship.

Small-business owners who find themselves mediating a peer conflict should avoid taking sides, provide an objective viewpoint, keep the discussion from bogging down in tangents or name-calling, and help each worker to understand the perspective of the other. Finally, the employer’s overriding concern should be to explicitly restate his or her expectations of staff performance, including the ways in which staff members should behave toward one another.

Attempts to address inappropriate workplace behavior through negotiation and mediation are not always effective. In some instances, an employee’s conduct or performance must result in disciplinary action. But there are a number of steps that employers can take to address the issues of workplace anger and hostility before they erupt into full-blown crises:

  1. Explicitly state your absolute opposition to inappropriate behavior, in writing and through team meetings. This can be included in new-hire guidelines, and in “zero-tolerance” statements displayed in public areas. Such statements should also clearly delineate which types of comments and actions are regarded as offensive.
  2. Encourage an environment that values diversity.
  3. Recognize that incidents of workplace hostility tend to get worse over time if they are not addressed. The whole workforce will likely be watching, looking for some signal about whether management takes such transgressions seriously, or whether it implicitly gives the green light to further incidents.
  4. Learn to recognize the symptoms of workplace anger, and try to provide employees with constructive avenues to express frustrations and/or concerns.
  5. Monitor workplace culture to ensure that it does not provide fertile ground for unwanted behavior.
  6. Make sure you have all the facts before confronting an employee.
  7. Make sure that your own actions and deeds are a good model for your employees.

Half the battle as managers is to be tuned in or aware of situations as they are occurring. The other half of that battle requires knowing how to intervene effectively and quickly and to facilitate a fair resolution.

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