Work is a huge source of stress and tension in the U.S. according to the American Psychological Association. When you feel overworked, have a bad boss, or experience tension between co-workers, it’s expected that tension is going to mount.

No business owners WANT their workplace to be stressful or tense. Many invest in process improvement programs to improve workflow and (hopefully) reduce the feeling of being overworked. Company leaders spend big bucks on management training to produce better mid-level and senior managers. What’s often missing, though, is a proportional investment and focus on reducing tension between coworkers at all levels of the organization.

The Tension Crisis

Traditionally, conflict between employees gets shuffled to HR to manage. It’s tough to convince executives to tackle coworker tension head-on, but these statistics compiled by The American Institute of Stress should make you think:

  • 14% of [workers] felt like striking a coworker in the past year.
  • 10% of [workers] are concerned about an individual at work they fear could become violent.
  • 10% of [workers] said they work in an atmosphere where physical violence has occurred because of job stress.
    • In this group, 42% report that yelling and other verbal abuse is common.
    • In this group, 29% yelled at co-workers because of workplace stress.
  • 18% of [workers] experienced some sort of threat or verbal intimidation in the past year.

Workplace tension expressed as threats and violence in the workplace demands attention. I contend that even if you have manageable workload and a good boss, tension between coworkers can have disastrous consequences on your company culture. You end up with a culture where there’s high turnover and good employees don’t stick.

The Dysfunction Connection

Why is there so much tension between coworkers? It’s not a simple answer. A good starting point, though, is to evaluate your organization’s dysfunctions.

In our eBook, Dysfunction Spells Doom, we outline five critical dysfunctions that inhibit high performance. Each of the five dysfunctions can cause a team to fall into disrepair. There are two dysfunctions, however, that contribute significantly to coworker tension: lack of trust and fear of conflict.

Lack of Trust

A lot of people say trust is earned. In the workplace, this attitude can be dangerous. If leaders onboard employees into a culture where trust doesn’t exists from the top-down until people earn it, you’re asking for trouble. A culture like this will quickly become competitive in an unhealthy way. It will pit employees against each other in a dog-eat-dog environment. This certainly doesn’t do anything to reduce tension between coworkers. If anything, it increases it.

When certain employees have management’s trust and others don’t, it’s a recipe for disdain, jealousy, envy, and sabotage. People want equal treatment. You can have incentives and perks for top performers, but everyone should start with the same foundation of trust.

Every employee needs to know that trust is freely given from day one and employees can only LOSE trust by failing to live up to the values of the organization. This means you have to clearly communicate the company’s values to begin with. Don’t make your team feel like they have to earn trust. Your culture will suffer for it and tension will thrive.

Fear of Conflict

When tension shows up, as it sometimes will regardless of a trusting culture (you can’t prevent some things from getting through), fear of conflict will cause it to grow. At the first sign of tension, leaders need to intervene and mediate. It’s great to coach others how to handle coworker-to-coworker conflict, but leaders have to demonstrate that they’re willing to address tension instead of hoping it will melt away on its own.

People don’t forget situations that make them feel tense. In fact, many people file those experiences away and learn to avoid similar situations for the rest of their lives. It’s because people generally don’t like to feel tension or engage in conflict. That said, conflict doesn’t have to be combative. We’ve written on this topic before.

It important for leaders within the organization to coach those involved when they observe or feel tension between other employees. You can’t assume that they’ll figure it out or that either party is open to discussing the real issue on their own. However, giving the team the space to handle issues on their own can be powerful in a healthy environment as long as dealing with the tension is the focus. This also means leaders cannot be afraid to exercise candor, tactfully, when talking about the tension between coworkers.

You have to avoid being accusatory and help the parties discover the root issue at play to avoid personal attacks.

A Work in Progress

Reducing stress in the workplace as a result of coworker-to-coworker tension is critical to job satisfaction and higher performance. As with anything involving people, navigating tension between coworkers is dynamic.

If you’re unsure about the sources of tension within your team, check out our free high performance teamwork assessment. You can download it, give it to your team, and use the results to identify areas of dysfunction in your organization. The results are your starting point for defining the issues that exist between coworkers. If you find you need more help than a free tool, we have programs designed to help. And we’re always available to talk if you need more pointers.