Early in my career, I worked as a mediator and saw firsthand how poorly managed conflict can impact a workplace. After years of simmering conflict, the owners of a welding business had finally decided to hire external mediators for some help. Many small unresolved grievances had built up over time amongst the staff, and when someone had a complaint about another employee, the manager often ignored the situation. Or in some cases, they came down hard on the whole group for being “petty.” These kinds of responses made staff reluctant to involve leadership in other issues, and the result was predictable. By the time I was called to help, some of the welders would no longer speak with each other and were even refusing to work on the same shift as other colleagues.
When it comes to managing conflict in the workplace, how leadership responds matters a great deal. Early on in my work with ACHIEVE, I had to work with a difficult office-related conflict. It required me to give a fair amount of my leadership time to the issue for a couple of weeks. When the matter had been resolved, I remember staff remarking that they appreciated that I took the issue seriously and acted with care.
As part of our research for our earlier book, The Culture Question, we conducted a 2,400 person survey asking a series of questions related to workplace culture. First, we asked whether people agreed or disagreed that they had a great place to work. Then we asked them to respond to a series of survey statements, including several about conflict resolution. Some of what we discovered surprised us.
Leadership’s quick action in response to conflict is key to creating a great work environment.
As expected, we saw a strong relationship between people liking where they work and the statement, “People in my workplace deal with conflict constructively.” The surprise came when we asked for responses to, “Leaders in my organization work to resolve conflict quickly.” This statement had an even stronger relationship with whether people said they liked their workplace. We also noticed that people who said they had an unhealthy workplace were much more likely to strongly disagree that their leaders dealt with conflict quickly. It seems clear that how leaders respond to conflict plays an important role in having a healthy workplace.
In my work as a mediator and consultant, I have paid close attention to the significant impact of leadership on conflict resolution. In addition to responding to conflict quickly, leaders must also handle it well or they will make it worse. I believe that most leaders can be effective at conflict management when they internalize and act on the following truths:
If you hear about a conflict, take it seriously.
As leaders, we often find out about conflict when someone confides in us or it erupts in a public manner, like at a meeting. When someone confides in you, remember that most people want to be able to deal with conflict on their own and only approach leadership when they feel stuck or need help. If the conflict is brought up in public, remember that a lot of water has probably already gone under the bridge. People usually don’t make their conflicts public until they feel fed up. If you hear about conflict, take it seriously and be sure to promptly move to action.
Ignoring the tension is doing something!
If your response to a conflict is inaction, it will be interpreted as meaning one of three things: for some it validates their behaviour; others see it as a message that you don’t care about the situation or don’t want to provide leadership; and some will interpret your silence as a lack of competence. Don’t let this happen, even if conflict scares you. Silence is one of the worst mistakes that leaders routinely make. It allows conflict to fester and grow, and it kills morale – so take action and do something about it.
How you act matters.
Your actions should carry the message that you care – that you want to see a positive resolution to tension or disagreement and you trust your people to act with good intentions. Those involved in the conflict should see you on the side of making sure there is good process for resolving the conflict rather than having chosen a side.
You should not fix the problem for others.
While you may need to play a role in the resolution of a conflict, the best solutions come from the people involved. When people act on their own solutions, they are more likely to be happy with the result. Your job is to empower others and ask questions to help them come up with positive ways forward and then support each person to follow through on what they said they would do.
You should call for values-based behaviour.
Help people draw on their best behaviour by anchoring your conversation in their values and those of the organization. Remind people of their own positive intentions and the probable positive intentions of anyone else involved in the conflict. When people consider how they want to be in the world and how their organization wants them to act, it leads to proactive and pro-social behaviour rather than the typical reactiveness in conflict.
You must model what you want.
In most conflicts, what people want most is to be understood. When they are heard, they will be more likely to move forwards. As a leader you should demonstrate how to listen. Let people know what you hear them saying, and ask if they have heard and understood what others who are involved in the conflict are saying. Help them think about how they can listen, and encourage them to speak in ways that will increase their likelihood of being heard.
Also demonstrate the importance of taking responsibility. You can do this by explaining to those involved in the conflict the ways you may have contributed to an environment where conflict is growing. Showing people how to listen and taking responsibility for your actions (or inaction) will encourage them to do the same.
Curiosity will bear more fruit than judgment.
Perhaps the most important realization for any leader when it comes to leading through conflict is that they must lead themselves and others to listen and act with curiosity rather than judgment. In conflict, people begin to perceive the actions of other people through a negative lens, which leads to negative judgments about their character. When seen through the lens of conflict, previously innocent behaviour like the lack of a greeting in the morning may now be interpreted as being standoffish or uncaring.
Our job as leaders is to hear the tension-filled stories of others, acknowledge their experiences, and then move them towards curiosity so that they will be open to listening and seeing the situation from the other’s perspective. Once we have listened to someone, we can then begin helping them consider alternatives to explain the offending behaviour that don’t include negative intent or a character problem in the other person. When people are curious, they are more open to dialogue and can begin to seriously consider how to resolve the conflict.
It’s smart to ask for help.
If you are feeling stuck or think the situation is beyond your skill level, don’t be afraid to reach out to another leader, someone from human resources with expertise, or a mediator for assistance. This shows that you care and that you want to help your people. We all benefit from the skillful perspective and assistance others can provide. Sometimes even mediators utilize other mediators to work through conflict – I know I have.
As we discovered in our survey for The Culture Question, leadership’s quick action in response to conflict is key to creating a great work environment. In addition, how leaders act makes a great deal of difference in shaping the outcome of any conflict, so rely on these simple truths to guide your actions.
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