For as long as humans have gathered to work together there has always been the potential for conflict and always will be. No matter how good the intentions and shared enthusiasm of a workforce, we humans are complex beings and the world we live in is becoming evermore complex itself.

If left to chance and to fester, the effects on any organisation can be at best disruptive to business and in more serious cases devastating to productivity, organisational reputation, staff welfare and the retention of quality staff. Most of us have at least bared witness to it in some form or another and it can make life at work just downright miserable.

Whilst policy and procedures need to be put in place to hose down skirmishes that have broken out, preventative measures are always going to be easier than a reactive approach and attempts to glue the shattered glass back together.

Like some family members, we can’t necessarily choose our colleagues and the office can become a melting pot of varying personality types, workplace culture backgrounds and motivations for being at work. An outbreak could spring from many sources, but the show must go on and it needs to be actively addressed and managed. So, here’s a number of ideas to consider in reducing the likelihood in your workplace:

1. Delineate clear lines of responsibility

Most of us like the freedom to just get on with our jobs without too much red tape and too many restrictions. This said, tension can commonly arise from overlapping staff roles or vague understandings of where one role starts and another finishes. Staff can benefit from at least some parameters of structure and knowing where the borders are.

Even a simple schematic can go a long way towards achieving this, establishing a pre-determined boundary of jurisdiction between individual staff and the rest of the team. In managing these expectations from the start, often the mutual understanding of the structure can steer around any disputes in the first place; and if someone does begin to probe the boundaries or launches an incursion, management can immediately point to the agreed map and reign in any rogue manoeuvres.

2. Effective duty statements

Closely related to lines of responsibility are effective duty statements. These can reinforce the team structure and boundaries by clearly stating the role of each individual.

On the flip side to this, the neglect of individual role performance is a sure-fire way to breed animosity amongst staff. The neglect of one individual can have flow-on effects to the overall collective success of the team and if left unchecked, can spread an infectious malaise throughout the group.

Management will also start copping heat for presiding over double-standards or for perceived favouritism. Formal duty statements are a must in pre-empting these common issues and should be reviewed and amended annually or as the workplace landscape evolves.

3. Unequivocal codes of conduct

Unfortunately not all members of our society got the memo that inappropriate behaviour in the workplace is unacceptable. It can come in many forms from bullying and harassment through to colleague exclusion.

In some cases the poor behaviour may not even be malicious or intended at all – a staff member may be going through a period of personal stress which effects their mood in the office or they may have come from a previous toxic workplace, where a culture of unacceptable conduct had become normalised.

Whatever the case, if not actively controlled this one risks causing untold damage to the fabric and productivity of the group and can become a significant staff welfare problem with potential for associated reputational and legal risk implications.

Not only do the expectations need to be formally stated in the enterprise policy, but the codes of conduct need to be reinforced in the minds of the staff on a regular basis. This can be through the conduct of mandatory annual staff awareness training and its inclusion in induction and new-starter employment agreements.

There’s also benefit in displaying the codes in public places such as the staff kitchenette or in virtual locations such as the intranet welcome page. Once again, this also serves as a placard for management to point to when counselling a staff member on their performance and behaviour.

4. Clear and open management communication

Clear direction on task and project parameters, deadlines and constraints is a must for avoiding unnecessary uncertainty and confusion on a day-to-day basis. If neglected, frustration and conflicting interpretations are sure to flow from this stream, cascading into friction and conflict.

No doubt the preciseness of direction is situation dependant and needs to be tempered with giving staff the space to use their own initiative and the chance to flourish. But with some additional thought put into potential rub-points and flow-on effort put into clarity at the start, much uncertainty can be avoided.

The supporting act to this is maintaining an open-door policy – within reason – allowing team leaders and staff to clarify direction as the project evolves and complexities arise. It also allows staff to exercise their own creative verve by suggesting calibrations to the direction, keeping the project agile, providing outlets for discontent and giving the team more ownership going forward. A sense of ownership and happiness within the group can be a powerful tonic in itself against the stirrings of conflict.

5. The action imperative

The effectiveness of any pre-emptive control measures are significantly diminished by a failure to act and enforce established boundaries. Team members will start to pay lip-service to policy and management direction and any problem-staff with agendas or empire ambitions may start to exploit the perceived or actual weaknesses.

Attempts to uphold later in the piece can then expose management to perceptions of favouritism and inconsistency; the sentiments should be backed up with action from the start with management and the policies known to be resolute.

So… in summary

Policy and methods can no doubt evolve in parallel with the workplace, but establishing some groundwork early is important and can go a long way in thwarting future pain. Later implementation is by all means possible, but it needs to be presented as a line in the sand and a new start for the crew, pre-empting accusations of double-standards from previous faux pas.

Whilst by no mean exhaustive, the tools and methods mentioned here not only serve as a vehicle of managing expectations upfront, but also as a platform from which to address problems and breaches as they arise, bringing staff and the team back onto the mapped path.

At the end of the day, we all want to be working in an environment that is pleasant and rewarding – in some cases though, this needs to be grown and then protected.