Healing fractures: The importance of resolving workplace conflict

Jessica Funk. Coaching Specialist
Jessica Funk
May 10th, 2024
A group of professionals sitting at a table during a meeting in a brightly lit office.

What is a workplace fracture?

A workplace fracture occurs between a supervisor and the person they supervise, who typically have a healthy relationship but encounter a conflict.

If not addressed appropriately and in a timely manner, this damages the relationship, causing a fracture.

A conflict between the two can occur when leaders are micromanaging their staff or have too much of a hands-off approach. It can also occur as the result of poor communication and lack of transparency.

Fractures can make it hard for people to work together and trust their leaders. If these problems aren’t acknowledged and addressed, they can cause bigger issues with employee morale, productivity, retention, and overall work culture.

Recognizing fractures

  • Decreases in communication. Staff have shorter, less frequent conversations and avoid direct communication.
  • Changes in attitude. Staff are showing a lack of enthusiasm, increased sarcasm, and visible frustration such as eye-rolling or crossing arms during interactions. 
  • Decreases in trust. Staff are now reluctant to share information and they begin to second-guess decisions. 
  • Lack of support and feedback. Staff stop responding to feedback requests, such as employee surveys and you see a noticeable withdrawal of overall support from them.
  • Increased conflict. Staff are having more disagreements over minor issues, in meetings or when it’s time to make decisions. 
  • Performance issues. You notice a lack of engagement and noticeable drops in productivity from your staff. 
  • Signs of burnout. You notice your staff are taking more sick days, they are more irritable towards you or others.

Repairing fractures

In the child welfare space, strained work relationships can spill into other areas, affect outside partners, and ultimately have negative consequences to the families being served. Repairing a workplace fracture isn’t just about mending individual relationships; it fosters an environment where collaboration can thrive, ideas can flow freely, and employees feel supported and empowered to do their best work. 

The first step in repairing a damaged workplace relationship is acknowledging the issue. After admitting that damage has been done, there are a number of strategies to move toward a resolution.

  • Reflect on your own actions. You should apologize if necessary. Take responsibility for any mistakes or misunderstandings, and reflect on how your actions might have contributed to the strained relationship. If you need assistance identifying how to best apologize, consider a resource like this.  
  • Commit to conflict resolution. Find a way to agree on a process for resolving issues in a constructive manner. 
  • Practice active listening. Make sure you listen to concerns without interrupting or being defensive and that you are listening with intent to understand compared to just listening so you can respond.
  • Establish boundaries. Set clear personal and work-related boundaries to ensure everyone feels respected.
  • Find common ground. Identify common work goals and shared objectives. 
  • Build trust and follow through. Respond authentically and with intention, and honor your commitment to resolving the conflict. 
  • Acknowledge your role. Recognize and understand the inherent power dynamics as a supervisor, and encourage your staff to speak up. Publicly recognize that openness is valued and lead by example by being open with your staff.

Imagine this scenario…

Below is a scenario outlining the strategies listed above, including examples of language you can use and easily identifiable steps you can take in everyday life.

Lisa is a supervisor at her state’s child welfare agency and has a team of 5. Lisa is beginning to recognize that her team’s dynamic has changed. Lisa has started to realize that one team member is often on her phone, rolling her eyes, or just flat out not paying attention whenever Lisa addresses the team. She has begun to notice how this team member replies to emails fairly quickly but seems to avoid face-to-face conversations with her.

Lisa has also started to hear rumors that this team member is looking for another job due to increased stress and feelings of being micromanaged. Additional complaints include Lisa’s consistent checking in on tasks, taking over tasks she already delegated, and asking to be cc’d on all outgoing emails.

This has created a toxic work environment, leading to frustration, decreased morale, and ultimately a fracture within the workplace that could cause Lisa to lose a valuable team member. Fortunately, Lisa recognizes these as signs of a fracture and knows she needs to work towards repairing the relationship.

Here’s a sample dialogue of what that could look like:

Lisa: “Firstly, I want to openly acknowledge that my approach, particularly micromanagement, has contributed to feelings of frustration and a lack of trust. I realize now that my actions may have made it difficult for you to feel valued and heard. For this, I am sincerely sorry.

My intention was never to create a divide but to strive for excellence in our crucial work. I understand now that my approach was misguided. With that said, I believe that we can’t move forward without addressing these issues openly.

I’d like to hear your thoughts, experiences, and suggestions on how we can improve our work environment together. I’m here to listen and understand, not to judge or defend. Please, feel free to speak honestly.”

  • We witness Lisa acknowledge her mistake of micromanaging and reflect on how that negatively impacted her team. She then sincerely apologizes and avoids blaming any of her staff. We then see her begin to commit to conflict resolution by asking for feedback from her staff.
  • As staff members share their thoughts, Lisa practices active listening, by acknowledging their feelings and experiences, and reflects on the feedback without interrupting or becoming defensive.

After a collaborative discussion on specific actions and strategies, Lisa reiterates her commitment to conflict resolution by summarizing the agreed-upon steps and commits to follow through in the form of transparency and accountability.

Lisa: “Based on what you’ve all shared, it’s evident that we need to implement changes in how we work together. I am committed to making immediate adjustments, including delegating more effectively, establishing working boundaries, involving you in decision-making, and ensuring our workplace feels more inclusive and supportive. However, I need your help to identify specific steps we can take together to make these improvements last. What are your thoughts?”

Lisa: “Before we wrap up, I want to emphasize the importance of our collective commitment to positive change. Rebuilding trust and fostering a supportive environment won’t happen overnight, but every step we take together brings us closer to our goal. It’s okay to acknowledge that there may be bumps along the way, but what matters most is how we navigate them together.”

  • Lisa focuses on rebuilding the trust with her team with a sincere and intentional meeting, she has found common ground with her team in wanting to create a more positive and productive workplace. She acknowledges the work ahead and affirms that they will work together.

Lisa: “I want to reiterate my availability and openness to your feedback. Whether it’s a quick chat in my office, an anonymous suggestion in the feedback box, or a scheduled one-on-one meeting, your voices matter, and they will be heard.

Your insights are invaluable in shaping our path forward. Lastly, I want to express my gratitude to each and every one of you. Your dedication to our mission, your resilience in the face of challenges, and your unwavering commitment to the well-being of the children and families we serve is truly inspiring. 

Let’s carry the momentum from today’s conversation into our work going forward. I want to allow time for processing and will follow up with everyone individually by the end of the week.”

  • Again, we see Lisa establish steps to follow through as she creates a space for feedback. She is showing that she has genuine intentions in rebuilding trust in allowing people time to digest everything that was discussed and following up with everyone individually to show her commitment in hearing from everyone. By the end of the week, Lisa has met with everyone on her team.

Once Lisa has received feedback, she designs an implementation plan that she then shares with her team. She shares a more detailed breakdown of how she will work on decreasing her micromanaging skills. This includes more team building so she can get to know her staff on a different level and build trust with them. This includes participating in additional coaching so she can be a more transformative leader.

Knowing that she has shown her staff through micromanaging that she does not trust them, she will delegate tasks but give a designated check-in time and stick to that. Lisa knows she has trained her staff well and now she must lean into that and trust that they will get the job done efficiently.

Workplace disagreements are inevitable, and repairing a fracture is not always easy.

Being aware of fractures within your organization and implementing these strategies can help improve outcomes for children and families.

Overall, repairing workplace fractures is essential for creating a positive, supportive, and productive work environment conducive to employee retention and organizational success

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