6 Red Flags of Workplace Conflict

“Wow, I never saw THAT coming!” As a leader, this is a statement you never want to make. Many of us think we know what trouble in the ranks looks like, but too often conflict is simmering without our awareness. And suddenly we’re getting blindsided by a full-blown crisis, and all the costs that it entails.

Conflict doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. There are always red-flag warnings that a conflict is developing, and you are much more likely to avert disaster if you know what to look for early on - and then can act on it in a productive way.

The flip side of this concept is equally -- in fact, even more -- important. The leader who is aware of how their team members are interacting with each other in conversations, emails, agreements they’ve made, during meetings, etc., can accurately take the pulse of their team’s ability to function and to thrive. Then positive behaviors can be acknowledged and nurtured, which pays big-time dividends in high morale, collaboration, productivity, and innovative contributions. This is called ‘harnessing the power of conflict.’

What are the conflict red flags you need to look for?

Here are 6 signs that indicate there is a problem brewing in the workplace. These are not the only signs, but some of the most common. Each is described in the form of a question to help you suss out potential red flags in your own workplace. I recommend you use this as a tool and write out your answers.

Dysfunctional meetings. Do your staff meetings turn into gripe sessions instead of brainstorming sessions? Are there one or two people who always seem to dominate the conversation, while others appear annoyed or distracted?

Anger or over-the-top reactions.  Do you notice anyone who seems easily triggered into anger or overly-emotional reactions? Anger is rarely the response for a first-time or one-off upset.

Distrust. Trust is essential in any team work environment. Are people complaining about other people? Are you noticing a feeling of skepticism around the team’s project or management’s ability? Are team members able to be vulnerable with each other?

Cliques forming. Employees should be working as a team, functioning as one collaborative body. Are you noticing that people are dividing into cliques, or do the same employees always seem to team up on projects, or sides of an issue?

Repetitive disagreements. Does it seem that the same people always disagree? Is the disagreement often over petty matters? This may be a communication issue that can escalate into disputes or worse..

Inappropriate communications. Are you getting reports of rudeness, disregard for another’s opinion, or inappropriate language, which are showing up during meetings, interpersonally, or in written communication such as emails? Consistent rudeness or disrespect for others can be an indicator that something is going to blow up soon.

What to do with a red flag moment?

If you happen to notice these or similar signs that trouble is brewing, do not assume that the issue will resolve itself. If you think you can ignore them, consider this: A study by CPP Inc. (publishers of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument) found in their study on workplace conflict, that U.S. employees spent 2.8 hours per week dealing with disruptive conflict. This amounts to about $359 billion in paid hours (based on average hourly earnings of $17.95)!

The situation needs to be addressed as early as possible by your team leader, HR staff, or yourself. In many cases, a professional conflict advisor can help everyone get to the core cause of the conflict and help resolve any issues. If you’re wondering what your next move will be, consult a trusted advisor, or, perhaps a professional independent conflict advisor. Develop an option or two, and tackle the issue head on.

As a leader, knowing these subtle but important indicators can help you better understand your own workforce, employees and teams -- not only what might escalate into a conflict, but how avoiding or heading off some of these things can in fact enhance their performance and engage them more in their work. Seem counter-intuitive? Schedule a conversation with me, and I can show you how this works.