Most people can handle just about any amount and type of work that comes their way. It’s not the work that puts them over the edge – its conflict with coworkers!
Conflict in the workplace – or anywhere - is inevitable. Conflict is part of being human. Some people are more comfortable with it than others, and some people tend to be “conflict carriers”.
Ultimately, it’s part of a manager’s job to deal with workplace conflict head-on. Ignoring it will only make matters worse, and will eventually impact team productivity, results, employee satisfaction, and the manager’s reputation.
Here are some ways to manage workplace conflict, so that little problems don’t fester into BIG problems:
1. Make the ability to collaborate an expectation. Establishing expectations start with the hiring process. Are you looking to hire lone wolfs, or employees that can collaborate with others? If it’s the latter, than you need to ask questions that uncover how well the candidate gets along with their co-workers. Look for red flag answers like, “Well, I have very high standards, and sometimes get frustrated with others if they don’t meet those standards”. Which often translates to: “I thought my co-workers were idiots and we fought like cats and dogs.”
Make the ability to collaborate a job expectation for all employees, reward it, and make it a condition for advancement.
2. Recognize the difference between healthy and destructive conflict. Healthy conflict is making it OK to disagree, to debate the issue, challenge the process, and speak up. Destructive conflict is when it gets personal, gets in the way of working effectively, and has a negative impact on productivity, innovation, and ultimately, results.
3. Don’t ignore it – look for little signs that can turn into big problems. A manager needs to be having regular one-on-ones with all direct reports, as well as regular team meetings. These are the opportunities to ask questions, listen, and watch for subtle clues of unhealthy conflict. Most employees won’t want to tattle of their co-workers or be seen as a complainer – but you might pick up that they are going out of their way to work with another employee. Point out your observation, and ask why.
4. Be a role model with your peers. Many managers don’t understand the connection between how well they work with and talk about their fellow managers, and how well their own employees work together. Employees learn more from watching a manager’s behaviors than they do from what the manager says.
5. Learn a conflict resolution methodology. Most people shy away from conflict because it’s often messy and painful. If you’re not good at something, or you don’t like it, you’ll most likely avoid it.
However, if you learn and practice a consistent approach, you get good at it, and your world gets better as a result of dealing with it, then you’ll be more likely to seek out opportunities to deal with conflict.
I’d recommend taking a course in conflict management or reading a good book, like Crucial Conversations. A good course or book will give you a framework and set of tools, which gives you the confidence to confront conflict in a constructive, deliberate way. You’ll also be able to coach employees how to handle their own conflicts.
There are a lot of different conflict resolution models, but most of them have the following 5 elements:
1. Stay calm and dealing with the emotions first
2. State what is bothering you in a respectful and specific way
3. Listen to the other person’s perspective for complete understanding
4. Problem solving – look for root causes and win-win solutions
5. Agree on actions to be taken, and making mutual commitments
Any new skill takes time and practice before we get comfortable with it. The important thing is to have the right intention – which is to resolve the conflict, not to punish the other person.
6. Help your employees with their conflicts. Once you’ve learned how to handle your own conflicts, you can help your employees deal with their conflicts. There are two ways to do this – teach them a methodology (or have them learn the same way you did) so that they can handle on their own. In fact, some managers and experts say this is the only approach a manager should take – that is, they should never get involved in a conflict between two of their employees. While I can see the value of encouraging employees to handle their own conflicts without having to “run to Dad or Mom”, I still think are times when a manager needs to step in.
However – it’s important that the manager doesn’t get caught in the middle by having individual conversations with each employee and trying to mediate. Instead, the manager should sit down with both employees and coach the employees through the conflict resolution process.
Learn to proactively eliminate destructive conflict and deal with it before it gets out of control and everyone will be able to focus on their work, and not get caught up in unproductive and stressful workplace drama.