When a group of people work together, it’s inevitable that, sooner or later, there’s going to be disagreement over how things get done. But conflicts among team members must not always lead to low morale, plunging productivity, or bitter feelings.
A skillful manager with good conflict resolution skills can successfully resolve tense workplace situations in a way that leaves all team members feeling heard, respected, and motivated to continue doing their best.
In this blog, we’ll discuss exactly how leaders can do this— by identifying sources of conflict, developing strategies for resolving conflict, and working to prevent conflict from arising in the first place. Even in the post-COVID era in which employees often work from distant locales, there is a way that managers can ensure that all employees thrive and succeed on the job.
Why Do Workplace Conflicts Happen?
Amir takes pride in his work and sees Maria’s need for daily reports as “micro-managing.” Mary believes Mark’s frequent offhand comments to be racist and sexist. Luis and Dianne disagree vehemently about which approach to take on a project. Priyanka works in marketing but doesn’t get along with Kevin in accounting, who does his job with different objectives in mind.
If you’ve worked in any organization, these types of conflicts are the stuff of everyday life.
They arise when there are clashes of interests, desires, opinions, and beliefs. They can often be grouped into four broad categories:
- An employee believes he or she may have been discriminated against or harassed by another.
- Employees (or even departments) communicate poorly, resulting in inefficiencies and mistakes.
- Employees who work together have vastly different personalities and working styles.
- Employees in different divisions have opposing objectives and values.
When conflicts occur, it’s important to address them right away. If problems are left to fester, they can damage team bonds, sometimes irretrievably.
On the other hand, when managers confront issues quickly and directly, they can build a positive work culture in which all employees feel appreciated. That, in turn, can lead to better productivity, more innovation, and may even make it easier to recruit new employees who have heard about an organization’s stellar work culture.
What Conflict Resolution Skills Should a Manager Have?
One of the most important skills for any manager is the ability to communicate. Without that basic skill, almost nothing else matters. Good communication starts with good listening skills. By taking time to hear what employees have to say, leaders can better understand what the problem truly is and how it can be fixed.
Aside from good communication, managers should be curious. They need a high degree of emotional intelligence in which they are able to empathize and understand a team member’s point of view.
This emotional IQ should extend to treating people with integrity and respect, being patient, and not rushing to judgment, asking thoughtful questions, and staying calm when under pressure. The best leaders are also good problem-solvers who don’t take sides but look to find solutions that work for everyone.
What are the Top Conflict Resolution Strategies a Manager Can Use to Resolve Issues on a Team?
We all know there will be disputes and disagreements any time a group of humans come together to achieve a goal. When it happens, it’s important for a leader to know how to deal with it.
Management experts outline these key steps managers can take to resolve team conflict:
- Keep communication open and clear. Start by inviting colleagues to a face-to-face meeting in which differences can be aired. Choose a neutral impartial location like the work cafeteria or a walk outside.
- Listen. Talk with everyone on all sides. Be empathetic to what colleagues might be feeling. As you listen, pay attention to areas where there are commonalities in goals, interests, and strategies, as well as misalignments that might be used in a resolution that serves everyone’s interests.
- Focus on the problem, not the individuals. Acknowledge that there is a problem and be patient in taking time to understand every dimension of what is occuring.
- Identify points of agreement and disagreement. Consider what a team member’s interests may be, and where there are points of alignment.
- Develop a plan. In drawing up a plan to help resolve an issue, establish guidelines and prioritize actions and goals.
- Act decisively and follow through. Once you are able to identify a potential resolution, don’t procrastinate but act on it.
How Can Conflict be Avoided?
While there’s no way to completely avoid disagreements at work, there are ways to reduce the likelihood of conflict.
- Focus on clear communication. It’s imperative that everyone involved speak to each other openly, clearly, and constructively.
- Approach emails with caution. Because electronic communications lack the context of tone and body language, they can be dangerous if they are the primary way in which problems are addressed. It’s best to meet in person when there is a disagreement. Even when everyone is on the same page, it’s still always helpful to keep your emails human and welcoming.
- Create a positive workplace culture. Foster an office culture of civility. Employees should feel safe about voicing their concerns about how work is being conducted without fearing retribution.
How Can You Manage Conflict in Remote/Hybrid Environments?
Dealing with conflict in an in-person work environment can be hard enough, but what happens in hybrid and remote environments where much communication is conducted by email without the benefit of face-to-face interactions?
An over reliance on text, chat, and emails can lead to perceived slights, assumptions, and misunderstandings, just because it’s so much harder to read the author’s intent.
A few tips that can keep conflict from developing in a remote environment include:
- Avoid using email to discuss or resolve conflicts. Instead, meet in person where tone of voice indicates intent, or at least meet via video conference.
- Provide tech support for remote employees. If remote and hybrid workers have trouble dealing with technology, it is likely to foment workplace conflict. Work with your company’s information technology division, as well as with supervisors to support their ability to effectively manage remote and hybrid workers.
- Make sure worker schedules are transparent and aligned. Invite input and discussion about scheduling decisions, and clearly state expectations.
- Trust your employees. Many managers can’t squelch a nagging feeling that remote and hybrid workers are slacking off. However, treating workers like they can’t be trusted will damage morale and de-motivate some of your best workers. Rely on results and conversations about workload to reassure you that employees are performing.
- Coach remote workers. Provide opportunities for remote workers to connect with each other and build more visibility. When remote workers build relationships with other team members, it can help cultivate a sense of trust and goodwill that can help prevent the assumptions that may lead to conflict.
- Provide a cooling off period when things get hot. When conflicts do arise, think twice before addressing them in the heat of the moment. Allow for a period of reflection, providing team members with written questions they can reflect on. In a later meeting, colleagues can be given an opportunity to ask questions and respond.
- Don’t forget the final objective. Workplace conflicts often arise because different team members have different ideas about how to achieve a common goal. Address this problem by framing the conflict with an organization’s broader mission and values. Those values should guide interactions and help make a path forward clearer.
In short, conflict among team members is an inescapable part of working life, but it doesn’t have to lead to acrimony and antagonism at the office. Using a few of the conflict management strategies we’ve discussed, you’ll find that you can resolve issues in a way that encourages a positive and productive work environment.