While many of us may think of our jobs as a safe environment, workplace conflict has become a pervasive problem in the United States. According to a recent study, 85 percent of U.S. employees deal with workplace conflict on some level. When left unchecked, this turmoil can have a detrimental effect on both workplace safety and employee productivity.
To help organizational safety leaders understand the best methods for de-escalating workplace conflict, we invited Carol Cambridge, founder of The Stay Safe Project, to join our regular Risk Control Webinar Series. To recap the webinar, we broke Cambridge’s presentation into four main themes with 15 helpful tips to help you de-escalate tense situations on the job.
According to Cambridge, before diving into a de-escalation, it's important to ask yourself whether you're dealing with a difficult employee or simply an employee who is experiencing difficulty. The distinction is crucial here, and we need to approach the two instances very differently.
An excellent illustration of this is the challenges and chaos brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left many employees dealing with hardships they’ve never known before. If your employee is acting uncharacteristically difficult, it’s crucial to handle the situation with compassion, empathy, and understanding.
If the conflict stems from two employees who can't seem to get along, it's important to intervene quickly. Pay attention to your employees' dynamics and be ready to get involved early before things escalate.
Remember that your objective is to resolve the conflict peacefully and effectively, not validate your position on the situation.
“What other people say about you is their reality, not yours," Cambridge said. Make sure to remain objective and dispassionate while de-escalating conflicts.
We’ve all heard the old saying about what happens when you assume, so avoid becoming the butt of the episode by acting on hard evidence rather than emotions and preconceptions.
It's essential to understand your judgments, biases, and emotions to make sure they don't exacerbate the situation.
“Check in on your thoughts, beliefs, and triggers [before going into a tense situation],” said Cambridge. “Recognize them, acknowledge them, and see if you can shift your mindset on these. If you can, you will notice a big difference in how you come across and how quickly you are able to handle the situation.”
To understand what triggers our emotion, Cambridge introduced the term “Amygdala high-jacking.”
“When something happens to trigger our emotions — or pushes our hot buttons as we often call it — it closes the gate on the logical section of our brains, [which] triggers a potential threat or an emotional charge,” said Cambridge. “We call that emotional charge an ‘Amygdala high-jacking.’”
Triggers — or actions that set off emotional responses in our brains — often stem from traumatic experiences, bad relationships, and other events that impress themselves on our subconscious.
“We cannot control how someone else feels or know what triggers them," said Cambridge. "That’s why the more adaptable and flexible we are with both our verbal and non-verbal communications — the easier it is to de-escalate.”
We can, however, control how we respond to our triggers. Cambridge recommended using the mnemonic device “Control – Alt – Delete.”
When emotions are running hot, there’s no time for complex, esoteric verbiage. To de-escalate tense situations, try using simple, straightforward language — Cambridge recommended somewhere around a sixth-grade level.
Build trust with the employee by being authentic, acknowledging the problem, and understanding their feelings. Establishing a rapport will validate the employee and let them know that they have been heard.
Cambridge recommended avoiding language that can put someone on the defensive and derail constructive dialogue; examples include:
“Sometimes people just need to know that we care enough to hear their frustration regardless of whether it’s entirely justified,” said Cambridge. “Using neutral language helps them to understand that you are listening.”
Cambridge offered some tips for using neutral language, including using words like “navigate” to make the resolution more of a collaboration. Other neutral language examples include:
When conflict arises, make sure you give off a completely neutral vibe. Being neutral allows you to create voluntary compliance among the involved parties that lets them know they have your undivided attention and you aren't there to judge them. According to Cambridge, it's essential to quickly get to this place of neutrality (within 15 seconds or so) to make sure the situation doesn't escalate further.
Here are some tips to make sure your body language remains neutral when de-escalating conflict:
The greatest fear in a conflict, according to Cambridge, is that an employee who was involved will react violently (especially if they’re disciplined). While we won't dive into the worst of worst-case scenarios here, Cambridge has a lot of expertise with this topic and has produced a video series on active shooter situations to help companies respond, which you can check out on her website.
To keep a conflict from turning into a confrontation, it’s crucial to be aware of your surroundings. Situational awareness starts with being prepared and familiar with potential dangers.
“You can train yourself to be more aware of your surroundings,” Cambridge said. “You are responsible for the safety of your team members (the one that’s causing problems and everyone else).
“Situational awareness means that you have a feel for what’s happening with personality conflicts, bullying, power struggles, and all potential for violence."
To learn more about managing workplace conflict, check out thestaysafeproject.com/.
This presentation was part of CRI’s Risk Control Webinar Series — regular installments of webinars to educate the group captive members we work with on topics like workplace safety, organizational leadership, and company performance. The thoughts and opinions expressed in these webinars are those of the presenters and do not necessarily reflect CRI’s positions on any of the above topics.