How often have you experienced  conflict in the workplace? This could be in the form of bickering, gossiping, or outright confrontation done in an unhealthy way. I've seen it happen in leadership groups to rank-and-file employees in tiny start-ups to international corporations. It's prevalent, demoralizing, and it costs organizations a bundle each year.

A CPP Inc study on workplace conflict found that office conflict costs U.S. businesses about $359 billion annually. Conflict produces poor team performance, increases stress and communication gaps, breeds resentment, and impacts retention.

Conflict often begins with a real or perceived wrong and if it's not quickly neutralized, dysfunctions will surface and spread. There are two ways to immediately and effectively minimize conflict.

1. Put a stop to gossip.

This is the easiest, most immediate way to reduce office conflict and the best way to handle it may seem counter-intuitive. Instead of focusing on the people who chose to gossip, focus on eliminating the ''listening'' to gossip - because gossip stops when no one listens. The office gossips will be neutralized when they no longer have an audience.

It's as simple as this: When someone begins to complain or talk badly about another person, no matter the reason, ask, ''Before you go on, will either of us approach him directly about this?'' If the answer is ''no,'' stop listening.

Elimination of gossip creates the possibility of sustaining a culture in which group members actively invest in the development of all other members and reduces conflict between employees.

2. Vanish the ghost in the room.

The ghost in the room is that uncomfortable presence that no one wants to talk about, but we all know it's there and getting in the way of something we need to accomplish. The ghost is typically caused by a belief that a person or group thinks to be true. It may or may not be true, yet it affects the performance of the group.

An example: "James started an initiative and did not inform anyone else about it. He must not trust us or think we are good enough to help him. In the future, I will not trust him because he does not trust me."

There could be a multitude of reasons why James did not inform the team -- they are moving fast, it required discretion so competitors did not find out, and/or he may actually not trust the team. Regardless of the actual motive, in the absence of information, the team makes an assumption, and then treats that assumption as truth, and allows the assumption to dictate the team's actions.

To vanish a ghost, you need to nail it down, to shine the proverbial flashlight on it. You accomplish this by identifying it and naming it, and then resolving it in conversation with the group involved.

In James' example, the team should verbalize their perceptions from both sides in an open and safe environment. Each side should take turns listening without placing blame or finger pointing. It will become clear that there are several "half-truths" contributing to the various perceptions. Understanding each side's perception will help the group work through the problem, but each side must be willing to listen.

In many cases, to vanish the ghost completely, one party will have to ask the other for forgiveness. This is challenging because the party who is asking for forgiveness, may feel like they were in the right. This is where powerful leaders and peak performance teams recognize how their own egos get in the way.

Peak performance teams are ruthless at vanishing ghosts, no matter the cost, even if it means setting aside ego. The performance of the team is more important than "being right" or "looking good."

Creating a culture that doesn't support gossip or learning to vanish ghosts is like toning a muscle -- the first few times you do it will be hard and uncomfortable, however; the more you practice, the easier it gets.

You and your team will begin to see improved communications and better team performance in the absence of gossip and ghosts. That's how you know you've made it!