When two employees in your office are screaming and throwing staplers at each other, conflict is obvious. But how can you, as a leader, identify behaviors that lead to conflict before things get out of control?

“Most people who act out violently at work indicate what’s going to happen through their words and behavior beforehand,” says Staver, creator of the audio and video series 21 Ways to Defuse Anger and Calm People Down.

Most situations don’t reach to the level of violence, but people usually shows signs even before verbal conflict occurs. Good leaders should be able to recognize conflict and then decide if action needs to be taken, or if the employees involved can solve the situation themselves.  

Signs of impending conflict

Be observant and look for these behaviors, which may mean conflict could arise.

  • A decrease in work production.
  • Unmet project milestones.
  • Low employee morale.
  • Increased absenteeism.
  • Uncharacteristic mistakes.
  • Quieter-than-normal employees.
  • Employees not communicating with you.
  • Employees withholding critical information.
  • Employees communicating too much. This displays a lack of trust or work confusion.
  • Unusual levels of employee complaining.
  • Customer complaints.
  • Out-of-the-ordinary behaviors or actions.
  • Employees blaming coworkers instead of looking for the root cause.
  • Co-workers who refuse to work together.
  • A lack of motivation.
  • Negative body language.
  • Increased levels of gossip.

You may also want to check out my article about how leaders can turn conflict into something positive.

Other tips for identifying behaviors that lead to conflict

  • Have methods of identifying workplace issues, such as an open-door policy or an anonymous suggestion or note box. Other options include confidential employee opinion surveys and focus groups.
  • Ask every employee how their day is going. This way they will be more open should a conflict arise. Getting to know your employees better will increase their belief that sharing concerns will not be unheard.
  • Invite a workplace abuse specialist to talk to your employees about the topic. Clearly define workplace abuse.
  • Engage in open and regular communication with those that you lead. Actively encourage people to openly talk with each other about their issues.
  • Set up a close relationship between employees and the human resources department. Establish a mutual trust.
  • Recognize the opinions of others. Thank them for participating.
  • Have a workplace violence policy and incident report. Let your employees know that workplace violence won’t be tolerated and corrective action will be taken.

The difference between conflict and disagreement

Sometimes a problem is merely a disagreement and not conflict. Understanding the distinction between the two is important for leadership success.

Disagreements are regular occurrences and can be signs of a healthy workplace. They require mutual respect and don’t impact employee productivity. On the other hand, conflict means that those involved are unable to sustain productive and stable exchanges. Conflict can also escalate to an unmanageable and often serious situation.

What behaviors that lead to conflict are currently taking place within your team?

Photo Credit: Flickr user d3l