We would all like the power to wave a magic wand and “abracadabra,” everyone in the workplace to get along seamlessly. Unfortunately, that magic wand doesn’t exist.
Conflict is inevitable in any workplace. As a manager, it is your responsibility to address and resolve conflicts effectively. Failure to do so can cause lasting damage to team dynamics and reduce productivity.
Is conflict always negative?
Conflict can arise from a variety of sources. People have different opinions; they compete for resources and sometimes have power struggles. It can lead to a tense work environment, communication breakdowns, and even the loss of valuable team members. But wait - conflict does not have to be a negative force. If handled correctly, conflict can lead to high levels of psychological safety, more creative problem-solving, and innovative ideas.
What is the leader’s role?
Imagine two young brothers fighting over the last orange in the house. They both wanted the orange, and they were on the verge of a lose-lose situation. The brothers were tugging back and forth so hard, that they were almost destroying it.
Mom walked in and saw what was happening. With some quick thinking, she took the orange from both boys and cut it in half, leaving each of them with what she thought they wanted. Problem solved, right?
Wrong. As it turned out, one of the brothers wanted to bake a cake with the peels of the orange, and the other wanted to eat the orange and would have simply thrown the peels in the trash. If mom had taken the time to listen, learn, and understand, both boys could have walked away from the conflict 100% satisfied.
Just like the mom in our story, as a leader, you play a critical role in managing conflicts on your team. Instead of just stepping in and resolving the conflict yourself, it’s important to gain a deeper understanding of what’s happening.
Conflict Resolution Techniques
Here are several conflict resolution techniques that leaders can use to resolve conflicts effectively:
1. Impactful Listening
Impactful listening is fundamental in conflict resolution, as it helps to understand each perspective and identify the root cause of the conflict. Ask open-ended questions to get to the root of the problem. Practicing empathy and understanding can go a long way toward creating an environment for healthy conflict resolution.
I once worked with a manager who told a story about the power of listening during conflict. She had two direct reports who were not getting along. She saw the tension building over the course of a couple of days. These two always had a strong relationship, though, so instead of stepping in, she thought she could allow them to solve their conflict by themselves.
By the end of day two, she was pulled out of her office by the sound of two raised voices. She couldn’t believe it – they were yelling at each other in the middle of the common area!
She had no other choice but to intervene. She brought them into her office to talk about what was happening. After they both vented for awhile (and even shed a few tears), they got to the bottom of the issue.
Two days prior, the manager had a catered spaghetti lunch for everyone. During their lunch break, both co-workers sat down to eat together. One of them sprinkled the last of the parmesan cheese on top of her spaghetti and then threw the container away. The other had wanted parmesan cheese on her spaghetti, too, but hadn’t been asked if she wanted any.
The moral of the story? Sometimes, it’s the cheese on the spaghetti. It can take a lot of listening to get to the root cause of a conflict, but it’s well worth it.
2. Facilitating Productive Conversations
Facilitating productive conversations and negotiations can help to reach a compromise on a solution that works for everyone on the team. Sometimes, bringing the involved parties together to work towards a common goal can help to resolve the conflict. And don’t be afraid of silence! Sometimes, silence is necessary to allow everyone to think through the situation.
3. Real-life Examples
Real-life examples and success stories can help to illustrate the learning opportunities that lie within conflicts. By showing the team how conflicts can be resolved in a positive and productive manner, you can create a culture where conflicts are viewed as opportunities for growth. Consider sharing a story, possibly one I’ve shared in this blog, as an example.
4. It's Okay to Walk Away
Realize when it’s okay to walk away. Many conflicts occur in low-stake situations. Two people may not see eye-to-eye, but a deadline isn’t quite looming. It’s okay to take a break for a while until tensions subside. This may be tabling the conflict for a couple of hours or even overnight. This isn’t avoiding the conflict; it’s allowing time for clarity.
Can you help prevent future conflicts?
It’s impossible to prevent all conflicts. It also wouldn’t be ideal! Conflicts are an opportunity for learning and growth. It is possible to be proactive in identifying potential conflicts, though. Measures such as team-building activities, peer-to-peer recognition, and encouraging open and honest two-way communication can make it easier to identify potential conflicts early on.
Ronald Reagan put it best when he said, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.”