a manager's guide to resolving conflicts at the workplace

Leadership and conflict often go together and some form of conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. Now, the good news: you can address and resolve workplace conflict in a healthy and productive way.

The way you deal with disagreements at the workplace as a leader will help you to earn the respect of your team and peers at work, and help boost employee morale in the work environment and create a positive company culture.

Related: How to boost employee engagement – in the office or at home

Workplace conflict comes down to a lack of clear communication

First-time managers need to be aware that every word you say, or do not say, as well as your body language, will represent who you are as an individual and manager, and how subordinates view you.

Managers need to understand that employees come from different backgrounds, and therefore, can have differing opinions and different working styles. While this diversity can lead to disputes and disagreements, it can bring more perspective and ideas to the organisation. Workplace conflict can lead to poor performance, a drop in productivity and job dissatisfaction for affected parties.

There are a few ways conflict can arise in the workplace: between team members, across different teams, and between yourself and an employee.

Other factors that will lead to conflict in the workplace include unclear responsibilities, unreasonable time constraints and lack of resources. Generally, it all comes down to poor communication.

The rules of engagement for any manager are simple: Recognise conflict, listen carefully, understand the nature of the conflict and identify the root cause, manage employee conflict and bring a swift resolution to the conflict.

Feigning ignorance toward the situation or being biased toward one party normally escalates the problem and causes further issues to manifest, and in extreme cases, results in potential legal issues. As a manager, you need to understand how to minimise conflict, and how to deal with any tensions should they emerge.

Related: How to manage performance reviews during the COVID-19 pandemic

Establish lines of feedback

The foundation of a good team is effective communication. Your team wants to hear from you and wants to be heard. Feedback not only helps your team grow but helps you absorb different viewpoints and develop in your role.

According to a workplace report by Gallup, only 23% of employees strongly agree that their manager provides them with meaningful feedback.

One early key is clarity and consistency. Make sure you are as direct and specific as possible. Every person on your team has their own context, so they may interpret what you are saying differently which leads to communication breakdown and conflicts arising.

As a manager, you need to work on creating a shared objective or vision that is supported by facts, and then convey this vision in a way where every single person on your team understands it and takes ownership for their part. This can be more challenging than it sounds, so patience is key.

Related: How to fix a broken team culture

Communication iis also a two-way street. You need to be open and available and authentic to create a sense of psychological safety for your team so that everyone can feel comfortable seeking advice when they are facing a problem.

One way to do that is to find common ground. Share your personal encounters with workplace conflict in your previous experiences. You want to show your team that you are also a human being, and that you can be worried and vulnerable, just like them.

Before a conflict arises, managers need to get ahead of workplace conflict. Set ground rules, create a safe space for people to give feedback and share opinions without censure or ridicule. Equally, creating a culture of problem-solving and resilience will discourage excessive drama.

Developing a listening relationship requires being interested to understand where your team members are at. One way to ensure everyone gets heard that you is to hold regular one-on-one sessions to get to know your team better as human beings.

These should not only help you keep an honest watch on priorities and metrics – but they can also help you address questions before they become misunderstandings. When you share information, be prepared to receive feedback, including some that are not so positive.

Related: Communication under a brighter spotlight: separating good from great

Accountability and conflict

Communication without a call to action becomes tedious. Instead, record promises made by your team – and include yourself on that list.

These tangible to-dos will help keep everyone accountable, and ensure that you too are on the hook. Ideally, it also reduces empty promises. Ensure you give adequate freedom to do the work, rather than micro-managing every step of the way.

Equally, avoid brushing over too many cases of work left undone according to the plan. This gives your team a greater sense of ownership and responsibility and draws a line in the sand that your team commits to not crossing.

Related: How to manage a remote team effectively

And when that line gets crossed? Conflict happens at work daily, and dealing with it can be a manager’s hardest task. However, when handled effectively, you’ll avoid disrupting the momentum for the team, and you as a manager.

How you handle and resolve conflict will be a true test of your leadership, address the conflict head-on before it becomes disruptive to business and culture.

This can be challenging and tricky for first-time managers but there are some ways to prevent that from happening. Ideally, consult your peers and fellow managers, and follow the team protocol. In cases where conflict occurs and is isolated, a small chat may suffice.

Then, in more extreme cases, you will need to act. Do so in an isolated space, ideally together with a fellow manager. Once done, speak with the team, and ensure that things move on quickly. Most importantly, no matter how heated things get, your feedback should never get personal.

Related: The value of mentorship and sponsorship, and what it can do for your company

Talk it out

A good manager sees signs of conflict before it gets serious: Take the person aside, listen actively, and then give specific feedback, explain both sides and come to a resolution.

Many managers avoid conflict and tension by insisting on harmony. This can just dampen down existing issues and leaves people feeling marginalised.

Usually, if people are given the chance to cool down and think about their actions, the situation will be minimised. So, ideally, be direct but calm when you address issues.

Switch on your active listening cap, confront issues in an empathetic way, brainstorm solutions and give your team member the chance to stitch it up themselves in a professional way.

Related: How a leader can gain better engagement with their team

Having a talk is a big part of getting involved, helping your team members grow, and understanding their limitations and boundaries. Let your team know when they cross the line – but that you support them.

Through careful observation, identifying behaviours that are triggers, and even role-playing better responses, your employees will develop better self-awareness, and respect you for taking the time. Consistent coaching will help to establish standards that prevent further conflicts from arising.

Conflict is inevitable. Waiting for it to resolve by itself or avoiding conflict is not an effective methodology for solving the problem at hand. Recognising that conflict rarely solves itself and that it needs to be addressed head-on is one of the key lessons that new managers need to learn in order to become more successful in their role.

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