For as long as humans have been working together, there have been workplace conflicts. From peers fighting amongst themselves to employees squaring off against supervisors, these conflicts can pop up anywhere, any time. Thanks to the multitude of modern stressors such as Covid burnout, political unrest, inflation, and other woes, workers are more on edge than they’ve been in recent memory.
In its 2022 US Workplace Stress Management Market Report, GlobalNewswire cited “epidemic levels of stress” in the face of these and other factors, while calling for more “workplace stress management programs.” Such programs can certainly have positive effects but some conflicts can be de-escalated using simple in-house strategies.
Why De-Escalate Workplace Conflicts?
Before we look at ways to de-escalate workplace conflicts, let’s consider the reasons for doing so. After all, countless companies have improved their products and services because of disagreements that led to productive discussions and change. Indeed, sometimes matters need to escalate in order to reach the point where change becomes the only option. Consider Apple founder Steve Jobs, who was fired from his own company before coming back to make it better than ever.
So there are times when disagreements can ultimately be productive, especially when all parties stay respectful and focused on solutions. But when conflicts are rooted in personal animosities or pent-up stress, emotions can run high and things can spiral out of control quickly. Those are the times when applying de-escalation strategies can hopefully nip harmful problems in the bud. At the least, they should help calm everyone down until a later meeting can be established, during which issues can be further explored and addressed in a more structured manner.
When Conflict Risks Becoming Violent
Unproductive workplace conflicts can have detrimental effects on individuals, groups, and organizations as a whole. At best, employees may end up with hurt feelings and resentment. At worse, things could spiral into a workplace violence crisis involving injuries or even deaths.
In 2020 alone, the National Safety Council’s Injury Facts recorded 1,176,340 “events or exposures” related to workplace violence. Of those, workplace “assaults resulted in 20,050 injuries and 392 fatalities.” Because of those alarming figures, workplace violence was ranked as the fifth leading cause of workplace deaths that year.
Apart from verbal threats and assault, NSC categorized intentional workplace injuries as follows:
- Stabbing, cutting, slashing, piercing
- Hitting, kicking, beating, shoving
- Rape/sexual assault
- Threats and verbal assault
Bear in mind, stressors have only gotten worse since those 2020 statistics were taken.
Prior to this data being published, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health shined a spotlight on who the primary victims tend to be in workplace violence situations, citing the following 2019 figures:
- 68% = Female
- 65% = Aged 25 – 54
- 70% = Worked in healthcare/social assistance industries
- 21% = Required 31+ days off work for recovery
- 20% = Required 3 – 5 days off work
5 Simple Ways to De-Escalate Quickly
It goes without saying that prevention is the best way to avoid workplace conflicts. Prevention efforts may include establishing a positive and respectful environment, training personnel on policies, establishing proper complaint submission procedures, and conducting period check-ins to receive face-to-face feedback.
Countless workplace disputes have played out after suppressed tensions finally boiled over, catching managers and supervisors off-guard if they weren’t aware of the underlying problems. That is why organizations are encouraged to conduct workplace climate assessments to tease out such issues. As noted by TRACC, there is “widespread consensus that climate fundamentally forms the soul of the organization and can significantly influence employee performance and attitude.” Organizations should pay heed.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration also offers resources to help mitigate workplace conflicts and violence. Their tools can help with identifying risk factors, establishing prevention programs, training, enforcement, and more.
However, all the prevention protocols in the world can’t stop every disagreement from escalating. Sometimes employers, managers, and supervisors simply have to play the cards they are dealt and do their best to mitigate real-time problems before they get out of hand. We recommend packing these handy tips in your toolkit to whip out when the need arises.
In the world of psychology, the cognitive-behavioral technique of “thought-stopping” has often been recommended for patients who continually entertain negative thoughts. Per Healthline, the aim of thought-stopping is “to disrupt negative thinking patterns and redirect thoughts to something that helps relieve distress.”
The most basic form of thought-stopping is to say the word “Stop!” in a firm tone. This simple trick can temporarily disrupt one’s thought patterns long enough that they may literally pause everything they’re doing. Sometimes that pause is all it takes for a person to reflect on their actions and recognize if their behavior is inappropriate.
While this technique isn’t necessarily effective for all situations, it’s certainly worth a shot in a moment of crisis. Essentially, it is the human equivalent of rebooting a computer that’s acting up. Maybe it’ll fix the issue, maybe it won’t — but at least it’s a good first step.
When tempers are flared up, many times the best thing you can do is get the aggrieved parties away from each other as fast as possible.
Every situation is different so there may be times when a conflict seems to be more one-sided, meaning one person is being aggressive or hostile while the other is less so. Still, for all sides to save face, it may be unwise to put the more aggressive person on a “time out.” Instead, consider asking both sides to take a break…a break where they go in opposite directions.
During this break period, Harvard Business Review recommends brokering a détente. “Don’t rush to sit them down together,” HBR suggests. “There are likely be asymmetries in their power or their abilities and you risk causing further damage to the relationship.”
Thus, there is no one-size-fits-all rule to how long the temporary separation of parties should last. Sometimes a few minutes is enough; other times, you might have to sit down with each employee first to discuss if anyone felt threatened or harassed. Organizations should definitely avoid putting two workers back into close contact if one of them feels unsafe.
Not taking sides (right away)
Before you jump in the middle of a verbal sparring at work, understand that anything you say could inadvertently throw gas on the fire. This can be especially true if you happen to have a closer relationship with one worker than the other, because of the perception of favoritism or bias.
Unless the conflict is blatantly one-sided or one worker is being berated, you don’t want to storm into the situation and start making judgments right away. There’s plenty of time for that after things have cooled down.
As noted by Slack, when attempting to de-escalate, “It’s more important to listen than to talk, and to ask questions instead of providing answers.”
Keep others out of it (at first)
Nothing seems to escalate an incident faster than when others rush in to shout support for one side or another. Just as you don’t want to personally fan the flames of a dispute, you also want to keep other people from making the same mistake in the heat of the moment. Unless an employee is in danger that requires a physical response, adding more angry voices may only make the situation worse.
There will be plenty of time later for debriefing anyone who wants to add their opinions. In fact, if an incident is severe enough, it’s vital to bring in such employees who may have witnessed what occurred, or anyone who has additional information pertinent to the story.
It’s human nature to get frustrated and upset at work sometimes. We’ve all done it to some extent, even if we managed to keep our feelings to ourselves. But sometimes workers wind up venting on each other. Before that even happens, the entire team needs to be trained and ready to respond appropriately to de-escalate the situation. When handled correctly, most workplace conflicts can reach a peaceful resolution where everyone can get back to work without further disruption.