Conflict resolution: practical guide for leaders

In this post, I will discuss conflict in the workplace, its importance for a healthy team, and a few approaches to handling it successfully. If you’d like to jump straight to the practical part, please scroll to “Conflict resolution strategy”.

Conflict management is probably not the most exciting element of a manager’s job. Still, it is a big part of it and can not be left “for later”. Conflict buildup is easy to sweep under the rug, yet here are some of the very evident consequences of doing that:

  • long-term damage to the relationships in the team

  • fear of disagreement and holding back

  • lack of commitment

  • active disengagement

Workplace conflict is unavoidable when team members are coming from different cultures, professional backgrounds and have different work styles. Therefore conflict can, and should, be managed and resolved. The way a leader takes care of disputes can be an excellent opportunity to improve team morale and lift spirits. Or, it may lead to withdrawal and losing trust in management.

Two people discussing a conflict
(c) Pexels

Conflict typically starts as a difference of opinions, desires, or concerns. After some initial buildup process, it would manifest itself through dropping quality of work or missed deadlines; unexpected issues brought up during 1:1’s, increase in sick days or time off taken, and more.

Causes of conflict

Below are a few of the usual sources of disagreement in teams that can help with bringing friction to the surface. As you read through, try imagining how each would manifest itself in your group.

  • Personality differences

  • Certain behavior to a team member (identified as “irritating” or “annoying”)

  • Perceived unfairness or inequalities in resources (access to education opportunities, better equipment, or air time in discussions)

  • Unclear role expectations

  • Poor communication skills (of an individual, someone else in the team, or the team leader/manager)

  • Cultural influence (first time working abroad or in an international setting)

Not all conflict is necessarily destructive. Let’s focus on the differences between positive and negative conflict.

Differences between negative and positive conflict

NegativePositive
hampers productivityopens up issues of importance resulting in clarification
lowers moralehelps build cohesiveness as team members learn more about each other
causes more (continuous) conflictcauses reassessment of processes
causes inappropriate behaviorincreases involvement
leads to absenteeismincreases quality of ideas
fuels disengagement

As we can see, positive conflict is an essential part of the working process, leading to more value being delivered and better relationships in the team. Thus, it’s a manager’s job to make sure that the conflict develops in a constructive way.

A woman is looking at a laptop thinking about a conflict at work
(c) Pexels

Your role in conflict resolution

Joining the process as a mediator, you can offer a valuable intervention by providing some of the following:

  • control over emotions

  • objectivity and detached perspective

  • facilitate bi-directional information sharing

  • force a decision if required

  • estimate team’s ability to implement the decision

As a mediator in a conflict, you can opt for controlling the decision-making process, leaving the decision to the team. It means that the result is not guaranteed. If the team didn’t make any decision by the end of the meeting, this would be the outcome. This approach has a significant advantage: more commitment to the result when the conflicting parties reach it and not the team leader or manager.
Changing your role to that of an arbitrator puts you in the position to make the final decision, thereby ensuring closure. As a consequence of this, the disputants may not fully support your verdict, which could lead to some degree of disengagement during implementation.

Making your participation valuable

It essentially boils down to being fair. The following questions will help gauge how fair the process is:

  • Do both parties have equal air time to back their position?

  • Is the process respectful?

  • Are there interruptions when people are talking?

  • Is the outcome balanced (taking into account the interest of both parties)?

Conflict resolution strategy

Having outlined the value of active conflict management, let’s get to the fun part – a practical approach to dispute resolution. The exact path to take would largely depend on the team and the personalities of the people involved. In the five steps below, I offer a template that can be used as a starting point to shape your strategy.

  1. Take the time to understand the situation before jumping in.
    It will probably seem like an unnecessary slowdown, but the returns on such time investment will be worth it down the road – including your team’s speed.

  2. Surface and clarify areas of disagreement
    Invite participants to share their views of the situation. Encourage team members to support their position with data: it helps keep the discussion rational rather than emotional. Set an equal speaking time limit for each participant and make sure people don’t interrupt each other.

  3. Create an environment where resolution is possible
    Avoid personal attacks and judgments; try to shift from “what” to “why”. Remind of the goal of the meeting. Management or leadership sets the tone: demonstrate mutual respect, and as such, a model to follow.

  4. Guide the process
    Take short breaks more often if the meeting is scheduled for more than 30 minutes.

  5. Confirm the decision and ask for a commitment
    Acknowledge the effort conflicting parties have put in. Use a written medium like a whiteboard or email to ensure everyone can observe the decision and commit to it.

The above concept may seem like a lot to keep in mind during the process, especially when emotions are running high. Therefore, picking up a smaller conflict situation could be a great place to start.

People at work shaking hands after resolving a conflict
(c) Pexels

Summary

Ongoing conflict can be daunting, but dealing with it is not as difficult as it seems, especially when you are able to take some time to make a plan of approach beforehand. Are there any tips or tricks you use when dealing with conflict? If so, would you mind sharing in the comments?
Let’s wrap this up with a quote by Margaret Heffernan:

For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.

Stay tuned for the next piece on the importance of quality bidirectional feedback. It is tricky to predict when it will come out, but there’s a way to receive a notification once it appears. Scroll to the bottom of this page to subscribe for notifications. You will only get notified about new blog posts, no spam 🙂

In the previous post, I talked about a few easy-to-implement approaches that make working with a new recruiter better. You can find here: Make your new recruiter work for you

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