In an ideal world, managing employees would involve motivating them to bring their best selves to work, encouraging a harmonious environment with teams working together to advance the company.
And while the real world might have these moments of managerial magic, they’re mitigated by the fact that employees are, well, human. They get frustrated. They feel overlooked, undervalued and slighted. When you mix in the stress of required productivity, you’ve got a recipe for interoffice conflict that’s up to you to solve.
Data gathered by trained mediator Robyn Short has found that “U.S. employees spend 2.1 hours per week involved with conflict, which amounts to approximately $359 billion in paid hours.” Even worse:
- 85 percent of employees deal with conflict on some level
- 29 percent of employees deal with it almost constantly
- 25 percent of employees have seen conflict result in sickness or absence
- 9 percent have seen workplace conflict cause a project to fail
So how can you avoid the negative effects of conflict without derailing your own productivity as a manager? Here are the conflict resolution styles all managers need to master:
Start with Self-Awareness
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Management, in general, requires the ability to thoughtfully analyze your performance and make improvements where you see shortcomings. The area of conflict resolution is no different.
To improve both your self-awareness and your skills in handling conflict, get in the habit of regularly asking yourself the following questions:
- Am I handling conflict using the right tools?
- Is my management style creating conflict on my team?
- How comfortable am I having tough conversations with employees?
- Am I proposing useful solutions in the event of conflict?
- Do employees feel confident in my ability to manage their conflicts?
- Am I creating an environment where conflict thrives?
These questions don’t have easy answers, and you may find that your responses vary day to day. By regularly asking them of yourself, you’ll identify opportunities to grow in your ability to manage conflict on your team.
Be Willing to Confront Conflict
As you evaluate your managerial skills, keep in mind that one of your most valuable tools as a manager is the willingness to confront conflict when you see it occurring. It sounds simple, but the reality is that most of us would rather bury our heads in the sand - avoiding any acknowledgement that things are wrong or that people are unhappy.
That’s a mistake, whether you’re avoiding conflict from the get-go or not following through on the resolutions you’ve attempted to put in place. On the Balance blog, Susan M. Heathfield shares:
“Even if the conflict appears to have been superficially put to rest, it will rear its ugly head whenever stress increases or a new disagreement occurs. An unresolved conflict or interpersonal disagreement festers just under the surface in your work environment. It burbles to the surface whenever enabled, and always at the worst possible moment.”
The best way to improve this skill is to make a habit of checking in with yourself. As much as your mind might try to shy away from the problem at hand, your gut won’t let you forget. Tune in regularly to identify conflicts that need your attention.
Know When to Take Action
Some trivial conflicts - like personality clashes - don’t require a heavy managerial touch. But a workplace will always have issues that need a manager who can step up to the plate and resolve tension or confusion quickly and easily.
Understanding these four conflict resolution styles will help you assess and address common workplace issues, so you and your employees can get back to work:
The aim of the collaborating conflict resolution style is to find a win-win solution. If you have department heads competing for resources and budget talks have ground to a halt, for example, it might be prudent to bring everyone together to generate consensus.
Start off by finding some common ground, suggests PR consultant Angela Stringfellow at the American Express Open Forum blog:
“No matter how significant a conflict or how drastic differences of opinion are, there’s almost always something you can find on which the two employees in conflict can agree.”
While you may have to set ground rules or approve the final decision, set your employees up for success by giving them the tools they need to negotiate fairly with one another to find a workable solution.
Sometimes we can’t get what we want out of a situation - and you may even have to ask team members to compromise their expectations around timelines, budgets, and other company resources.
In business, compromise isn’t always the best answer - but it can help you buy time and take baby steps toward finding a solution that will make everyone happy.
Read more about when you should compromise at work at Business Insider.
The accommodating conflict resolution style is inherently passive. Essentially, one of the parties involved in the conflict will simply accede to the demands of the other party.
If you’re in a managerial position, this style can be dangerous. A boss needs to be a firm and assertive decisionmaker, even if it occasionally makes others unhappy.
A competing conflict resolution style forces the other party to acquiesce to your demands. Of course, there will be times as a manager when you need to hold the company line - especially in issues of policy or strategy that are out of your hands.
Still, there are alternatives to using this strategy all the time. Consider how regular employee feedback and setting workplace boundaries can help you avoid conflict and cultivate a happier, more productive workplace atmosphere.
Cultivate a Culture of Feedback
In conflict resolution - as in so many things - be the example you want to see. How can you expect your employees to react to your critiques if you’ve shown that your ears are closed to similar criticisms?
Effective management is driven by an openness to giving and receiving feedback. Forbes contributor Laura Berger suggests the following:
“Ask your team for their frequent, healthy feedback, and you will begin to show boldness and encourage transparency through your example. Allowing unpleasant truths to trickle out gradually fosters a sense of camaraderie and understanding within your organization, in turn reducing the risk of future conflict.”
I’m not suggesting you open yourself up for an office free-for-all. Put boundaries around how feedback will be shared, received and acted upon to ensure you receive feedback that’s helpful - not vindictive. Then, prove to your team that you’re willing to make changes by implementing the recommendations suggested by your feedback.
The more you model this behavior yourself, the more your employees will start adopting it themselves.
Set Firm Boundaries
The cold, hard truth is that, sometimes, conflicts will be beyond your ability to resolve. You can’t help everybody, and certain employees’ personalities, traits or conflicts may grow so large that resolution isn’t possible.
Setting boundaries prevents these situations from continuing longer than they need to. For instance, you may need to:
- Set defined performance expectations for employees that they may be unable to meet
- Absolve yourself from responsibility for team members who won’t assist in resolving their conflicts
- Terminate employees who continually perpetuate conflict
None of these are easy lines to draw, but good management means not letting employees define them for you.
Reframe Your Understanding of Workplace Conflict
Finally, let go of the idea that all workplace conflict can be resolved. In fact, start to think of it as a good thing. As Tamara Lytle, writing for SHRM, describes:
“Experts have found that the most effective teams are those in which members feel safe enough to disagree with one another. A culture where dissent is allowed, or even encouraged, can spur innovation, diversity of thought and better decision-making.”
Learn to distinguish between productive and toxic conflict, and you’ll be able to leverage the benefits Lytle highlights without the downsides emphasized by Robyn Short’s earlier data.
Managers should also provide employees with clearly-articulated performance metrics that reflect relevant changes to their roles, and address these changes prior to an annual review.