And a poorly managed conflict will quickly undermine a company’s operations, in the form of lower productivity, absenteeism, a poor workplace climate, etc.
As a manager, you have a responsibility to know when to step in; ignoring even a seemingly minor conflict can poison a situation and ultimately wreak havoc.
This article suggests an approach and some avenues for reflection in order to optimize your response.
1. Pinpoint the source of the conflict
A conflict can arise for many reasons—a bad day (resulting in irritability), poor communication, a sense of unfairness, a lack of recognition, etc.
Depending on the type of conflict, the strategies to adopt will vary. This is why it’s vital to start by identifying the cause.
For example, imagine that an employee has been especially harsh with another worker, and the situation is escalating to the point where you have to act. You will need a different strategy depending on whether the employee got worked up for no apparent reason (perhaps suggesting a personality conflict) or got no help from their coworker during a rush (cohesion or performance issue).
A few examples of potential sources of conflict
- Personality conflict: some personalities are inherently harder to manage, such as narcissistic, impulsive and passive-aggressive types.
- Communication problem: can include a misunderstanding in an email, a mismanagement of expectations or a breakdown in communication.
- Conflicting work methods: non-compliance with protocols, lack of organization or procrastination.
- Performance problem: absenteeism, productivity issue or failing to meet deadlines.
- Hierarchy problem: lack of respect for a hierarchical superior, ignoring of assigned tasks, or overly vague allocation of tasks.
2. Choose the right person to step in
In any conflict-resolution situation, it is imperative to consider who is in the best position to intervene.
Sometimes it will be the immediate manager; other times it may be an HR person or even a mediator if the situation requires it. When a conflict really begins to degenerate or drag on, it will sometimes be necessary to seek the help of a professional accredited by the Institut de médiation et d’arbitrage du Québec.
Never hesitate to seek help and advice if you’re unsure what to do. In more complex cases, you may need to hire a mediator.
3. Choosing the right place and time to discuss the conflict
Intervening in a conflict in public is an unacceptable practice. In addition to humiliating the people involved, it completely undermines trust and team cohesion. Trying to resolve a conflict by email is no better; the risk of misunderstandings is too high.
To resolve a conflict, always opt for an in-person conversation. This will allow you to better interpret other people’s non-verbal cues and adapt accordingly. Also make sure you meet your employees in a private place where they will feel safe and comfortable.
To prevent the situation from further unravelling, never wait too long before stepping in. Instead, let the dust settle just a little so everyone has a chance to cool off—but don’t wait several days or even weeks before doing something.
For example, you can write to your employees that the conflict needs to be addressed, and that you plan to meet with them the following day or the day after. This way, you give them time to calm down and prepare for the meeting.
You also demonstrate leadership and show that team cohesion is important to you.
4. Meet the people involved individually
In order to remain as objective as possible, start by meeting individually with the people involved.
Both sides of the story
During the meeting, the idea isn’t to pin down every detail of what happened, but rather to have a better grasp of the situation and be able to find a solution.
Your role is not to take sides. Stay empathetic and understanding in the face of the situation.
Examples of questions to ask:
- How are you feeling?
- What do you think caused the conflict?
- Are you willing to work together to find a solution?
- Do you have any solutions to suggest?
Also see if the employee is willing to reach an agreement, otherwise the next steps to resolve the conflict will be in vain.
5. Set up a group meeting and devise an action plan
Once the persons concerned have been met with individually, it’s time to bring them together. Explain that the goal is not to find a culprit, but to find solutions.
In the conflict, your role is to act as a mediator. You aren’t there to dictate solutions, but rather to encourage your employees to come up with their own and to reach a consensus.
At the end of the meeting, you should be able to determine what needs to be done to end the conflict or to keep it from happening again.
Keep track of the process by putting everyone’s commitments down in writing.
The more seriously you take the situation, the more likely it will be resolved. You can even get them to sign the document to make sure they are committed to upholding the agreement.
Determine the consequences if the action plan is not followed.
Examples of questions to ask:
- What can you do to make sure the situation doesn’t happen again?
- What actions do you commit to take?
6. Follow up with the employees concerned
To be absolutely sure the conflict is resolved, follow up with your employees.
Make sure they live up to their commitments. If they don’t, apply the consequences you established.
It may also be helpful to go over what employees have learned from the situation. They will probably have learned things they will be able to apply in the future.
There is no miracle recipe
Managing conflict is never easy, but it’s a fact of life.
The better you know your employees and the stronger the bond of trust you’ve developed with them, the “easier” it will be to manage situations of conflict. Notice the quotation marks...
These situations will probably get you out of your comfort zone, especially the first few times around, but they are a profound source of learning.