Of all the skills required to be a successful manager, the art of embracing, sometimes encouraging and then managing conflict is up near the top. As a manager a good part of your job involves getting people to do things they may not want to do, or work with people they don’t agree with or even like, or discuss ideas that make them mad or go against their beliefs, and on and on. Conflict! The ability to recognize conflict, understand what’s causing it, and then work through it swiftly will serve you well as a manager. Not dealing with conflict will bring you misery and health problems, and may ultimately lead to your demise.
Conflict is a natural disagreement resulting from individuals or groups that differ in attitudes, beliefs, values or needs. Some of the main causes include poor communication, differing values, differing interests, scarce resources, personality clashes, poor processes, or poor performance. While we tend to think of conflict as a negative thing, it can be healthy when managed and can lead to growth, innovation, and new ways of thinking.
Determine Root Cause. Step one in managing conflict is to determine its main cause. You cannot effectively deal with conflict until you know why it’s occurring. I realize that statement sounds obvious, who wouldn’t know that right? Well, as humans we are fast to blame the people involved for the conflict, when many times the situation we’ve placed them in would cause conflict for any two people. If the situation is at fault, enlist the two people to help redefine the process, or adjust roles, or reallocate resources, or improve the technology, or whatever steps are necessary to move us forward. Conflict caused by situations can be easier to fix, however you need to fix it. Ignoring conflict caused by the circumstances of work can grow to a real conflict between people that can be very destructive.
Opposites attract, then attack. For any manager, one of the most difficult situations to deal with is when two very skilled employees just don’t mesh. They are constantly at each other throats, or perhaps even worse they engage in passive aggressive behavior. They are constantly talking to other staff members about the other person. Before you know the entire office is embroiled in this clash, people are taking sides, other arguments start…work productivity suffers. I’ve seen these situations get so bad that some employees leave because the workplace has become so toxic. If you don’t think you have any personality conflicts on your team then you are simply not paying attention. It’s inevitable when you combine so many different people together that you will have conflicts. Here are some ideas to help you resolve the out-of-control conflict like I described above.
Recognize the conflict. Don’t ignore it and hope it will go away. First, talk to both employees individually. There are two sides to every story so get to understand both viewpoints. Your job is to just ask questions and listen. Don’t judge or argue. You may get lucky and find that a misunderstanding is causing the conflict. Or you may find that in fact one of the individuals is just plain wrong and if so you can address that situation. More than likely, however, they are both right and both wrong and resolving this conflict will require give and take from both of them.
Set Expectations. Make it clear to both individuals that the conflict and resulting behaviors must stop immediately. Ask for each person’s agreement to work to resolve the conflict. But one if one of them thinks they are so “right” they refuse to change? In that case, you’ll need to face the reality that they may just need to go work somewhere else. You can’t progress through the conflict if both individuals aren’t committed to resolving it.
Meeting of the minds. After talking to both employees individually and getting their agreement to resolve the conflict, it’s time to get them together with you as the facilitator. Ultimately, you can’t force two people to get along, it’s up to them to either choose to work together or not. Share your observations. Tell them clearly what is expected of them in terms of how they need to behave towards one another. If you have a conduct policy, remind them of that. You have to be crystal clear on the behavior(s) you will not tolerate going forward, how they are affecting their own performance and that of the team. You always want to avoid attacking personalities. Focus on the behaviors. Sometimes the realization that their livelihood is at stake will shock people back to reality. Most importantly, make the two employees accountable for sorting out their differences. Get their suggestions on what they can do to resolve the conflict and improve working relationships. Help them uncover ways to work together differently. Help them see unproductive and unhealthy behaviors. If this meeting is going nowhere, you may want to enlists the help of another party like your Human Resources Professional or perhaps even an EAP if you have either. Or you may be able to transfer one of the employees to another department if you’re larger, though that tactic is usually only a short term fix. Ultimately, if the conflict can’t be resolved you may end up losing both employees, and you know that’s OK. If they can’t resolve, the emotional toll this conflict is having on them, their families, and the rest of your team isn’t worth it. Everyone will thank you for it.
One last word. Many times conflict in your workplace is caused by you not doing your job. Avoiding problems, tolerating poor performers, not providing enough tools and resources for your people, creating confusing processes, not communicating and the like all lead to negative outcomes. The best single thing you can do to have a healthy environment with lower amounts of negative conflict is to talk to your employees on a regular basis. Get to know them. Show them you care. Believe me it will make your life and theirs’ a lot better, and when problems do come up, they can be resolved faster and more effectively since you’ve already opened up the communication channels. Don’t be one of those managers that’s too busy to manage. Think about it!
If you need help working through a conflict, call our team. They can facilitate a solution to your conflict issue. Also, sometimes an outside perspective can help break a log jam.
Doug Blizzard brings a wealth of knowledge to CAI, serving as Vice President of Membership. During his first 15 years at CAI he led the firm’s consulting and training divisions and counseled hundreds of clients on HR and Employee Relations issues. If he isn’t speaking at North Carolina conferences, teaching classes on Human Resources or consulting clients on EEO and Affirmative Action, Doug is leading the company’s membership services.