Over recent weeks, I have been talking at length about the different personalities and dynamics that we come across in any working environment and today I’m going to broaden that out to look at managing conflict. The fact is that everyone is different, and has their own values, attitudes and ways of expressing themselves. Another thing that goes without saying is that it is impossible for everyone to get along all the time.

As a manager, you will be spending plenty of time trying to understand what makes people tick and how to get the best out of your staff. But you cannot expect everyone to play ball and to come to work every day with the mindset of how to better understand and work alongside their colleagues. In other words, conflict is an inevitable part of life in any environment where people are thrust together.

Left unaddressed, conflict can escalate into something extremely damaging to the organisation and the warring parties. So, the question is — what can you do to minimise, or even create something positive from, conflict?

Good conflict and bad conflict

The first thing to understand is that conflict is not necessarily a negative thing. The world would be an uninspiring place if we all felt exactly the same way about everything, and the workplace would lack imagination and creativity.

The most effective teams are the ones in which members feel comfortable about disagreeing with one another. When you have a workplace environment that allows dissent and disagreement, it suggests that the status quo is always fair game to be challenged, and it encourages a culture of innovation and continuous improvement.

The challenge lies in encouraging healthy conflict while avoiding harmful conflict. So how can you tell the difference? The tell-tale sign of conflict becoming unhealthy and non-productive is when it starts to become emotional and personal. At this point, objectivity is lost and judgement becomes clouded.

Listen to the problem

It can sometimes seem necessary to wade into someone else’s dispute and try to build bridges, but the first step is not only the simplest, it can also make the biggest difference. And that is to adopt an ears-open, mouth-shut approach until you understand what the real problem is.

Listening is an immensely important — yet underrated — management skill, and it is one you need to exercise before you do anything else. Take your time, let each person tell you the problem from his or her own perspective, and use all your listening skills to see it from their side. Just having their manager sit down and hear them out will have an immediate effect of cooling the situation down.

Get them together

Having spoken to all parties separately, the next step is to converse together. Ask everyone who has a vested interest in the matter under dispute to attend, not just the warring factions. The idea is to ensure that the subject matter of the meeting is the actual topic that is causing the disagreement, not the individuals who are disagreeing. By keeping the discussion objective, there is a better chance of consensus and an agreement being reached.

This is the “tearing off the plaster” phase, and as things come to a head, you need to orchestrate the discussion carefully to arrive at a positive outcome and not make things worse. There are some simple ground rules that you can implement if the participants are likely to become unruly:

  • Ask them to explain the situation from their perspective and to use the pronoun “I” rather than “You,” “He” or “She.” This keeps things calmer and less confrontational.
  • When someone has said their piece, ask the disagreeing party to summarise what their adversary has just said. This is a simple reinforcement technique to allow them to see it from the opposing perspective.
  • Summarise the situation in your own words and get the different parties to expressly agree that you have it right. This is a valuable step, as you have everyone agreeing on something.
  • Encourage all parties to shake hands at the conclusion of the meeting.

Motivate the team

If members of the team are at each other’s throats over a particular issue, you will need to use your peacekeeping skills to instil a more constructive frame of mind. Remind them of previous successes and talk about how proud you are of the things they have proved they can achieve in the past. Without a shadow of doubt, the people on your team are not stupid or childish people — but when a conflict becomes personal, it can do strange things to any of us, so it is important to get everyone’s mindset straight. 

Don’t take sides

Another thing that is almost certain is that you will have your own opinions on the rights and wrongs of the matter under dispute. Unfortunately, it is your job to keep that to yourself, at least while tensions are running high. Trust the team to come up with the right solution in its own time and in a way that allows everyone to save face — the manager stepping in and saying “she’s right and he’s wrong” is not going to achieve that.

Don’t delay

The longer a conflict is allowed to fester, the worse it will get. In time, others will get dragged into it, leading to morale and productivity going into a downward spiral. Of course, there is a balance to be achieved here —  intervene too fast, without understanding all the dynamics at work, and you could do more harm than good.

When to escalate 

Every manager sometimes returns home and says to his or her spouse or significant other that they occasionally feel more like a school teacher than a manager. While managing conflict is an inevitable component of management, there can come a time when you need to step back and acknowledge that this is what the HR team is for.

This is particularly the case if the dispute is so severe that things are getting increasingly personal and there are allegations of bullying or threatening behaviour, or if there is any suggestion that employees are threatening to quit over the problem.

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