Employee conflicts can be a huge distraction at work, leading to reduced productivity and lower morale. They can also be time-consuming. Employees and managers spend an average of 4.3 hours a week dealing with conflict, according to Conflict at Work, a 2022 global research report by the Myers-Briggs Co. Of the 271 employees surveyed, most of whom were from the U.S. and the United Kingdom, 36% said they deal with workplace conflict “often” or “all the time.”

The most common causes of conflict? Poor communication, lack of role clarity and heavy workloads, the survey results revealed. Those conflicts take a toll on job satisfaction. Employees who spend more hours dealing with conflict are also more likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs than those who spend less time handling conflict, the report concluded.

Of course, not all conflict is unhealthy. Some conflict in the workplace can be a good thing. Healthy conflict includes disagreements, debates or discussions that advance a conversation, meeting or project toward a goal. However, conflict turns unhealthy when people begin to disrespect one another. They get stuck in an endless tug of war, or those involved start focusing on the people rather than the problem. Frustrations can be magnified in a remote-work environment, where relationships exist primarily on computer screens. In such situations, conflict has the ability to simmer longer than if it was in person.

To defuse tensions within teams, managers should motivate individuals to resolve conflicts among themselves and coach them on how to do so. The tricky part is that people often end up in a disagreement without knowing exactly what they’re disagreeing about, so part of your job is to help them clarify what the issue is.

Some managers—and HR professionals—prefer to avoid conflict or don’t want to admit that they can’t handle a problem themselves. While it’s tempting to think a problem will go away if ignored, that rarely happens.
The same is true for raising people-related concerns. When a manager comes to HR leadership about a conflict between employees, those leaders must then weigh whether the issue is a matter of people not getting along, or if more egregious behaviour is involved.

If the disagreement is minor bring the two parties together to talk and help alleged offenders understand why their behaviours were problematic and facilitate a process in which those involved in the conflict can have a conversation. Sometimes the offended party just wants an apology and an acknowledgment that the behaviour was unacceptable. But apologies must be authentic—simply saying “I’m sorry if I offended you” won’t fly—and must include a promise not to repeat the behaviour at issue. Aim to facilitate a conversation with the relevant stakeholders to help them articulate what they would ideally want an outcome to look like then seek to find common ground in what each party wants.

Ultimately, company leaders can minimize employee conflicts by cultivating a strong workplace culture built on fairness, trust and mutual respect at all levels of the organization. That requires executives and managers to lead by example.

Preventing damaging conflict is easier when an organization has a strong, supportive workplace culture that cultivates trust. Here are some tips for company leaders to help build that trust, encourage healthy conflict, and prevent or address destructive conflict:

Survey employees. Conduct annual engagement surveys and have conversations with employees in the interim. Ask employees how well the company handles conflict. The results can help identify departments that have widespread problems so company leaders can know where they need to concentrate training and intervention.
Celebrate desired behaviour. Have managers seek out opportunities to acknowledge and praise employees.
Welcome healthy dissent. Managers should encourage dissent that’s focused on tasks, strategies and mission. Sometimes a retreat with an outside facilitator is the best way to get beyond surface conversations.
Create diverse teams. Create work teams whose members have diverse expertise, ways of thinking and backgrounds. Appointing a rotating “devil’s advocate” is a good way to stir up productive conflict.

Create accountability. This can help prevent conflicts, since many fights arise from a lack of clarity over who has the final authority to make a decision. Making sure roles are well established and communicated clearly can prevent problems from arising.
Encourage people to manage their own conflicts. Tell employees to work out conflict at the level it occurs rather than pushing it up the organizational chain. Doing so will give people confidence that they’re capable of handling these issues on their own.
Provide training. Employers can help people learn the skills they need to handle conflict by sending them to courses or recommending helpful books. Conflicts tend to become emotionally fraught when someone chooses not to focus on the issue at hand but rather to question another person’s competency, autonomy or integrity.