Conflict in the workplace is inevitable. However, conflict or on-going friction between managers and their direct reports can be especially frustrating, not to mention career-limiting! Typically conflict occurs when there is an incompatibility in regards to work or communication styles, personal values or job performance expectations. Regardless, manager-employee conflict is uncomfortable, unproductive and takes energy away from what is important.
When conflict continues unchecked it puts both parties in the limelight – but for the wrong reasons. Today’s organizations are flatter than ever, making everyone interdependent on one another for accomplishing their goals and tasks. Therefore, learning do understand and resolve conflicts quickly is a better option than avoiding conflict at any cost or getting entangled in them. People with good communication skills are naturally more adept at navigating conflict. The ability to listen carefully, hear alternative points of view along with a desire to learn and build relationships are core skills required to successfully employ any conflict management formula.
How do you deal with conflict? Our response is tied to our relationship or past experiences with conflict itself. Some people see conflict as a way to win (or lose) their side of an argument. Some see conflict as a largely positive process of unbridled engagement where they are challenged to think critically and ultimately design more effective solutions. Managing emotions during conflict is perhaps the greatest challenge. Even simple constructive criticism or needs-improvement feedback when handled emotionally or in an unsafe environment can stir up anger or fear. So the first step in managing conflict is to understand your natural reactions to it. Take a moment to write down examples of conflict that you have experienced and how you felt when in the middle of the conflict.
Once you have identified your natural inclination toward conflict, we can begin to consider options for resolution. Remember, conflict management is a collaborative process. And, the shortest distance to resolution is to focus on finding win-win options. It can also be immensely helpful to think of you and your employee (or whomever the conflict is with) as “conflict partners” rather than adversaries. Acknowledging the discomfort and the differences in style can assist you both in making this shift in thinking and promoting mutual collaboration.
The Conflict Formula:
- Identify the symptoms and source issues surrounding the conflict by asking open-ended questions. (“I’ve sensed some friction between us lately and I want to clear the air and make sure we are on the same page, what have you been thinking/feeling/experiencing?” “Let’s go a little deeper, what do you think is the root cause?”)
- Find common ground – where can you both agree regarding the facts of the situation. (“I appreciate your honesty, it’s obvious that we are on the same side and willing to put our departmental goals first, but we see the ‘how’ we achieve those goals differently.”)
- Listen to your conflict partner without emotion. (“Tell me more about that.” “What is your interpretation?” “How would you handle this if it happened with someone outside of work?”)
- Collaborate to identify solutions that will eliminate the friction or conflict while opening up communication. (“My expectations are _________________; what ideas do you have for working together to meet them?”)
- Mutually agree upon steps and timelines to accomplish the goals, making sure the employee has any required resources. (I think that is a terrific idea, what is the first step?)
- Schedule time to follow-up on progress. (Okay, let’s re-cap: what will we each do and by when?” “Let’s set an appointment for two weeks to review our progress.”)
Conflict in the workplace is too costly to ignore. Setting clear expectations and having a plan for action can help to reduce manager-employee conflicts, raising the level of security and confidence that employees feel toward their jobs. Remember, that as a manager and leader within your organization, you bring power to every conversation, so be careful not to intimidate direct reports when giving feedback or addressing conflict. Try to “walk a mile in their shoes” mentally before you sit down to address your concerns and depersonalize the discussion by using language that does not imply blame.