One of the most challenging aspects of running a business is effectively managing staff conflict. Dealing with people and personalities is vastly different than most of your other duties, where the goal is comparatively straightforward and simply requires talent and time to achieve.

Though good management can go a long way toward preventing many disputes, conflicts will inevitably arise due to the inherently tense nature of the workplace—differences in values and viewpoints, poor communication, personality clashes, and unhealthy competition.

Without a solid process in place for effectively handling staff conflict, both morale and productivity can decline to the point where your company falls apart. The following five steps provide a solid framework for effectively neutralizing employee conflict before a petty dispute turns into total chaos.

Act quickly

As a small business owner trying to grow your company, the last thing you probably want to deal with is resolving a minor employee disagreement. But ignoring a problem in hopes it will work itself out is asking for trouble. Many times, seemingly trivial disputes can fester and grow until they infect the entire company from within.

It’s vital that you deal with any conflict as soon as you become aware of it and take solid steps to resolve it. Not only can small disputes snowball into major ones, but if everyone on your team knows there’s a problem and you aren’t dealing with it, you’ll lose respect as a leader. Besides, the sooner you address a conflict, the easier it’ll be to fix.

Identify the cause of the disagreement

If you’ve caught the issue soon enough, it should be fairly easy to identify what the conflict is really about. But it can sometimes be difficult to get to the heart of the matter even in the early stages, especially if it involves staff who’ve frequently butted heads in the past.

Given this, you should first get the parties to agree on what the dispute is actually about by allowing them to share their perspective on the issue. You need to identify what needs aren’t being met on both sides and make sure there’s mutual understanding. Listen carefully to both parties and sort out the facts of the dispute, without making any judgements.

Avoid any unrelated issues not directly connected to the conflict at hand, and do your best to remove excess emotion from the situation.

Identify and respect differences

Conflicts are rarely black and white. There are numerous shades of grey, particularly when it comes to communication and social interaction, particularly as our workforce becomes more culturally and generationally diverse.

It’s best to acknowledge that we all have different opinions and points of view, and while it’s fine to disagree with someone, you can’t let that disagreement turn into a major conflict. If the issue can be framed as nothing more than differing opinions, it’s typically easier to reach a positive outcome.

As much as possible, try to get each side to understand and respect the other’s point of view, even if they’re completely opposite one another. By getting the parties to put themselves in the other’s shoes, it sets the stage for enhanced negotiation and resolution.

Establish a common goal

When the conflict has been clearly identified and each side has expressed their views, come up with a shared goal to work towards for resolving the issue. Discuss what each side would like to see happen, and then find common ground between those two positions upon which to start, even if that commonality is merely that they both want to end the conflict.

Try to work toward a resolution that’s a win-win for both parties, with each side giving a little to get a little. Be creative in searching for solutions, and allow the parties to help you brainstorm potential outcomes. Develop mutually acceptable criteria for evaluating these solutions, and work from there until you can find a compromise that’s acceptable.

That said, as the company’s owner, you’re the ultimate judge and jury. So if the parties aren’t able to work together, tell them as much and make the decision on your own. You’ll inevitably find some people are simply too proud or insecure to work honestly through a personal conflict.

Agree to take responsibility for the resolution

Once a solution has been decided on, each side should agree to take responsibility for whatever actions are required to resolve the issue. This may even include some action on your part. Taking responsibility can be done verbally, but having a written agreement listing all the details might be best.

From there, give the parties some time to implement the actions and work things through, and then hold a follow-up meeting to evaluate their success. Find out how each side feels about the situation now that it’s been managed, and make adjustments if needed.

Since managing staff conflict can be extraordinarily challenging even for experienced managers, don’t hesitate to consult with us as your Creative Business Lawyer® if you need extra guidance or support. And if the worst-case scenario happens and a party brings legal action against your business, you can rely on us to provide you with an effective and vigorous defense.