As a leader, it’s your job to do the hard things no one else wants to do, and that includes handling conflict. Conflict by nature is uncomfortable, exhausting, and challenging. It becomes especially so when it threatens employee morale, productivity, and your organization’s reputation.
There’s a lot at stake, so don’t give in to the temptation to ignore it and hope it goes away on its own. As a leader you can handle this, and you must. To help you out, we have tips managers can use for any rocky situation. After this, you’ll feel prepared for anything that comes your way.
Conflict management best practices
There are ways you can tackle conflict head-on and squash negativity before it becomes infectious. To start, you must first know how to identify tension and conflict while it is happening. Your team may not come forward to you right away when conflicts arise, so it’s important you keep an eye out for these warning signs.
When you notice one or more of these signs among your team members, it’s time to start paying more attention and asking questions.
- Performance worsening
- Changes in mood
- Rumors are circulating
- Isolation from rest of team or certain team members
- Communication worsens both in-person and on internal communication platforms
Clearly something is going on if any of the above is happening. It could be that your employee is dealing with something in his or her personal life that’s impacting their ability to work. If that’s the case, you can offer support in many ways (flexible working schedule, a reminder of helpful resources that may be available, etc.).
If it's something at work that is causing these behaviors, then it’s imperative you find the root cause. Here are some common causes of workplace conflict:
- Personality clashes with another employee
- Poor communication, misunderstandings, remarks taken out of context
- Feeling like needs are not meet, or feeling like role is not clear
- Competing job duties between employees
- Workplace behaviors that other colleagues find irritating
- Larger events such as a change in management, a merger and acquisition, etc. that cause tension
Whether or not the conflicts within your organization aligns with these causes, here are some tips to address the tension head-on.
How to handle conflict
Every situation will be different, but these best practices can guide you through nearly all turbulence.
1. Act quickly
When you become aware of an issue, you shouldn’t wait to address it. Waiting allows for the tension to grow. You risk other team members becoming involved, willingly or not, and news of the conflict spreading beyond your team.
If everyone in an organization becomes aware of what’s happening, and you haven’t acted yet, it’s not a good look. Your inaction could be perceived as poor leadership. You also risk other leaders becoming involved and making decisions for you, which could lead to a loss of respect from your reports and your peers.
2. Coach employees on handling the conflict
You should offer the employees involved a chance to handle the conflict on their own. After all, we’re all adults here. With that being said, you can coach your employees on how to have that conversation.
Meet with each of them individually and talk through what caused the rift and potential solutions. Equip them with productive language and educate them on the different conflict management styles.
3. Separate emotion from fact
Emotions will be high in any conflict. It’s your job to help uncover the facts; listen to your employees tell the story fully as they perceive it to be true. Then, help them untangle it.
If the story is, “She was rude to me”, ask follow-up questions like “What actions or specific behaviors caused you to feel that way?”. This will force each individual to take a step back and consider the root cause of the emotions they’re feeling.
4. Have clear behavior expectations
One way to prevent tension from igniting into a serious conflict is by having clearly outlined expectations on appropriate behavior. Of course, you can lean on your employee handbook in your knowledge management system for guidance on what behavior falls into the category of harassment and bullying. These types of conflict should be handled immediately and seriously, with zero tolerance.
Beyond the handbook, it’s a good idea to establish a code of conduct for your team or department. If honesty is a team value and an employee is caught lying, you can point out those established values when having a conversation about it. Guidelines should be able to help with any grey areas that come up.
5. Find a solution
Encourage those involved to come to an agreed-upon solution together. Even if the solution is to respectfully agree to disagree, that outcome is better than leaving empty-handed.
If the employees are struggling to come to a solution or have a productive meeting together, it may be time for you to step in and mediate the conversation. Your presence can ensure the conversation doesn’t become emotionally charged or go off the rails.
6. Document the conflict and resolution
When a solution is reached, it’s important you document what happened. Whether it’s in an ongoing document you keep for each employee or a performance management platform the company uses, you’ll want to jot the conclusion down while it’s fresh. Check with your HR representative as well; they may ask you to submit a report of what happened for their files.
Putting this in writing and sending it to all parties involved may be beneficial as well, depending on the type of conflict. This way they cannot forget the agreement they both came to, and if they ever break the agreement, there’s physical evidence to point to.
7. Lead by example
Your employees look up to you. If you are representing the team and company values every day, they will follow suit. Act the way you want everyone around you to act. Your employees will watch you navigate conflicts and uncomfortable situations, so set the example.
No one wants to spend their time untangling drama and offering tough love. But as the leader of a team, it’s your job to do it and do it well. For the sake of a healthy, happy workplace culture, you must be unwavering in tackling conflict and tension head-on. Your team will thank you (and respect you) for it!
About the Author: Holly is a manager on the content marketing team at G2. An avid reader and writer, Holly graduated from the University of Missouri with a dual major in Journalism and English. She firmly believes in the power of content and is constantly seeking ways to better engage and delight readers. (she/her/hers)