Leadership Challenge: Teams in Conflict

conflictTeam conflict at work is inevitable.  The close proximity of employees and the demands of the environment mean that conflict is virtually guaranteed. It’s not just expected…it’s common and no workplace, no industry, no team is immune. So before you read any further, re-read that first sentence.  It’s inevitable.  Conflict will always be there and no leader, no matter how gifted, can make it go away. Indeed, navigating conflict across your team is a part of what you signed up for as a leader.

Conflict is not always bad. Conflict is often an opportunity that, when handled effectively, enhances communication and produces change that many are collectively invested in. That said, the resulting tension of unhealthy conflict can sabotage the performance of everyone in the office and negatively impact the morale of the team.  It can also be detrimental if it is witnessed by or indirectly affects customers. Leaders have to balance two approaches to managing conflict in the workplace: the proactive role of preventing conflict and the reactive role of managing and diffusing conflict during and after it occurs. Here’s how to succeed at both approaches:

Be Proactive: Set Expectations

As a leader it’s critical to communicate a framework for resolving conflict. This means that teams have a clear understanding of how conflict should be managed and how to work through disagreements professionally. How do you expect members of the team to handle conflict?  Do you expect team members to communicate with one another before bringing issues to you? Has that been communicated to all on the team? What are the agreed upon ground rules? It can be helpful for you to express standards of conduct around conflict and the answers to these questions can help you get started.

The time to begin or revisit this conversation is when conflict is low. Set aside enough time for a lengthy dialogue to occur- you may not need it but if the group begins a healthy discussion you’ll be glad you have the time- and be sure the location is suitable for the conversation. Articulate that conflict is inevitable, shouldn’t be ignored, often can be healthy, and should be addressed in a professional way with an emphasis on dignity and respect. Expressly state that you will get involved if necessary, but that it’s rarely an appropriate first step. Encourage team members to communicate with one another directly when conflict arises.

Once you’ve communicated your foundational expectations explore team member expectations. Develop a staff agreement which outlines understood guidelines for how team members will communicate, interact, and respond when conflict arises. Ask open ended questions and give the team a chance to consider and contribute.  Some questions to ask might include: A) How will we handle conflict when it arises? B) How will we communicate? C) How will we treat each other when we’re angry? Challenge your team to answer the questions honestly and to collectively identify guidelines they can take ownership of. Work toward specific ground rules, agreed upon by everyone, that may include:

  • Don’t respond angrily: wait until your temper cools before talking or emailing.
  • Approach each other directly first before involving others.
  • Don’t gossip.
  • Approach conflict resolution with a common goal in mind: the good of the company and the client.
  • No yelling or swearing.
  • Always treat each other with Dignity and Respect

Compile the content into a document that is posted or shared. Treat the content as a living document and revisit it anytime a new leader assumes responsibility for a team, when new members join a team, or when specific issues of conflict have arisen that prove difficult to discuss or overcome.

Live Out Your Expectations

If a staff member brings a concern to you are you guiding them back to your core expectations before getting involved?  Doing so empowers each member of the team to manage conflict on their own at a base level, and shapes the overall culture of how conflict should be handled.  You may have to explain to an employee that you will get involved if and when it becomes necessary but that a first step for them is to try and resolve it directly. Simply ask “If someone was upset with you would you prefer they came directly to you, or brought the issue to me first?”  Most employees admit they would want co-workers to come to them directly with any concerns or issues.

But wait…you’re work isn’t done! You can offer to help that employee prepare for that conversation. Your willingness to talk through it and offer suggestions on how to be successful may go a long way to helping them resolve the conflict on their own. Offer to give them feedback on their approach or role play if necessary. Encourage them to manage their emotions and be respectful while also empathizing with the other person. Be sure to follow-up a day or two later. This demonstrates your commitment to their success…and makes sure they didn’t get cold feet.

Manager Involvement

On occasions when employees cannot solve their own issues, you may have to get involved. The manager’s role can be multifaceted. You can work to clear up misconceptions and identify “the big picture.”  As a leader you can help the employees see how their conflict has a negative impact on the business. Along the way you can work to understand the root cause of the problem. The involvement of a supervisor also helps employees keep their emotions in check and think rationally. If a sit-down meeting becomes necessary or a conflict explodes quickly, the following steps can help you work toward resolution:

  1. Remove the employees from the situation. If the conflict is public, send them each to a different private area. Keep the employees separated to quickly diffuse the argument.
  2. Give those involved some time to compose themselves then provide each party a chance to explain the problem to you. Sometimes tension can be relieved by just letting each employee air out his complaints. Avoid interrupting and be sympathetic to the concerns voiced.
  3. As appropriate ask probing, open-ended questions to get to the root cause of the problem. Consider asking: A) How have you attempted to resolve this? B) Why do you think this is happening? C) What is he/she going to tell me about this conflict that we haven’t talked about?
  4. After each employee talks to you independently, bring all involved parties together to discuss the situation.
  5. Work to have the involved parties talk to each other not to you.  Remind them of the ground rules and encourage them to make “I” statements as described above.  For instance, “I understand you are upset, but when these things occur I feel…”   Stay positive and keep the dialogue calm and professional for all involved.
  6. Explore root causes of the problem through dialogue, coaching, and asking open ended questions. Help those involved better understand when and why the conflict occurs. Identify workplace or personal challenges that may be exacerbating the conflict. Be brave enough to explore how leadership may contribute to the conflict as well.
  7. Decide on how the situation can be resolved as a team. Work on a compromise that makes all parties involved satisfied. For instance, if the employees find it difficult to work together on a project, consider transferring them to different projects.
  8. Offer to host a follow-up conversation as needed.
  9. If a suitable compromise cannot be found you may need to impose expectations for how interactions will take place going forward.

While a lot of advice is offered here, I should state clearly that there is no right, clear, or perfect way to handle conflict when it occurs. Nobody has THE answer when it comes to the complex sum of emotion, behavior, and perception that typically fuels conflict. But if you take proactive steps to set expectations before conflict arises then, when it inevitably does, guide team members through an even-keeled, open dialogue heavy on dignity and respect, you will likely be successful more often than not.

Now it’s your turn: What did you think of this article? What did I miss?  Offer your thoughts, suggestions and reflections in the comments box below!


4 thoughts on “Leadership Challenge: Teams in Conflict

  1. It must be great to have a support system and upper management that encourages open, constructive discussions. Putting policy’s and procedures in writing is very difficult for small businesses but essential for consistency in training and development.

    • Thanks for the comment Teri! I think the takeaway here is that, regardless of the presence of (or absence of) those formal structures, direct supervisors still need to take ownership for setting communication expectations for their teams. Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing! It’s always appreciated!

  2. Pingback: Conflict Definition - ElevatedBlog

  3. Pingback: Conflict Definition and Types - ElevatedBlog

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