We’d all like to think our teams keep it purely professional at work--debating ideas solely on their merits and leaving interpersonal conflicts and ego out of the discussion. But in the real world, the truth is, even the most restrained and objective employees sometimes let their emotions get the better of them.

Business conversations turn personal, opposing factions coalesce, feelings get hurt, and all of a sudden your well-oiled machine of a team has been invaded by middle-school-style drama. As the manager, how can you stop things from spiraling out of control and keep legitimate business disagreements from metastasizing into unhelpful politics?

3 Phases of Office Conflict

What you need first is a model of how the best intentioned workers get sidetracked by conflict. Lindred Greer, who studies organizational behavior at Stanford, and his colleagues have one to offer. The professors break down the development of a office conflict into three phases, providing a clarifying framework for the sort of brewing trouble anyone who has ever worked in an office will be familiar with.

The first stage is simply a disagreement between two people, which Greer and his team give the fancy sounding name of a "dyadic disagreement." This is usual sparked by a simple business disagreement--two people with opposing views on how to proceed with the work at hand.

But these routine disagreements often spread to close friends or allies of the original combatants so that there is "partial contagion." Still, at this point, many members of the team may remain completely oblivious of the conflict.

That is impossible in the last stage, however, one that the researchers term "full-blown conflict." How do teams arrive here? Emotional behavior such as slammed doors and raised voices draw in some more team members, while others are sucked in trying to intervene to get the group back on track. At this stage, no one can resist weighing in, and the work is suffering badly.

3 Things a Manager Can Do

Offices infected with this sort of drama (all of which sounds completely dreadful) are not only miserable places to work but also usually terribly unproductive. So if you see a conflict among your employees spiraling out of control in this way, what can you do to nip the problem in the bud? Greer offers three simple principles for managers.

The first is to monitor "dyadic disagreements." Most larger office conflicts start out as two people butting heads, so if you notice two staff members recruiting allies on less than completely business-based grounds (out of friendship, loyalty, or a sense of mutual political benefit, say), step in and arrange a lunch to talk things out before the situation gets out of hand.

The second key point in keeping conflict in check is to make sure you inform yourself about the real, underlying causes of the problem before you step in. The disagreement may, on the surface, look like it’s over marketing but really be fueled by who got a promotion and who didn’t last year. If you don’t know that, you’re not going to be able to set things straight.

Finally, don’t take sides. It’s human nature to sympathize with one faction over another, but as the boss, you need to be ruthless in monitoring your own preferences and biases and make completely sure you come across as neutral. If you’re unable to do that, deputize someone else to intervene in the conflict.

Do you have any other tricks to keep office disagreements from getting ugly?

Published on: May 20, 2014