Managing conflict in the workplace is a critical skill that managers need and having a process to follow is a key factor in developing that skill. Before getting into the process of conflict resolution within work teams, let’s get a little more insight into the issue from Tricia Cunningham, business advisor at LEAP management consultants. Here are her tips for managers in resolving conflict within work teams.
First Tricia, what is meant by conflict resolution within work teams?
When we hear the word conflict many managers become fearful. The word conjures images of difficult arguments or people entrenched in views. The manager then becomes reticent to deal with the issue. Let’s put it into context; conflict is really about a disagreement that’s been allowed to escalate, where there’s a lack of focus on what the real issue is and now it has become more complex and often more personal. Disagreement within any team is healthy; it gets ideas out on the table, it challenges people’s way of thinking, and it pushes people to defend their ground or consider an alternative point of view. So disagreement is healthy.
When it escalates to the point of conflict it’s no longer healthy. So managers need to learn that whenever there is a disagreement its ok to allow it to come out. Have a discussion about it, see where it’s going but rein it in at the right time, before people become entrenched or the discussion becomes personal. It should come as a relief to the team members that when there is a disagreement it’s allowed to be discussed, and people are allowed to have different opinions and voice them, without being shut down.
How do you manage conflict?
If there is a disagreement between two employees, and one of them approaches the manager about it, the manager needs to handle the situation carefully. The first thing to do is make sure the two employees have discussed the issue and tried to resolve it themselves rather than the manager stepping in immediately. If the two employees have talked it through but can’t reach consensus then the manager does need to step in. This means organising a meeting between the two employees to hear both sides. At this point the manager is acting as intermediary between the two. As intermediary you need to be careful that the employees are using language that is not inflammatory and is non-judgemental.
Staying with intervention, what advice have you for managers in their role as intermediary?
The manager’s job is to keep things focused on the core issues and not get blindsided by personal issues. The process may take one, two or three meetings to get the employees to understand each other’s position, but at the end of the process the manager needs to make sure to track what actions were agreed. Tracking actions is vital so the conflict doesn’t raise its head again.
The manager needs to have a plan of action that the two individuals have agreed upon regarding what’s going to happen next, and it’s the manager who must ensure that plan is followed through. The plan could involve specific steps that they have to take to resolve the issue, or it could simply be that both parties agree to disagree but they also agree to respect each other. The manager needs to ensure that respect is observed in meetings, interactions or emails. In any kind of communication that respect must be demonstrated.
The Process for the Manager
1. Check that both parties have made an effort to discuss and resolve the issue before intervention.
2. Understand the real issue causing the conflict.
3. Organise a meeting between both parties.
4. As manager/intermediary make it clear that inflammatory language is unacceptable and both sides need to respect each others right to speak. Ensure respect is maintained throughout proceedings.
5. Maintain focus on the core issue at the heart of the conflict. Do not get side-tracked by irrelevant issues.
6. Develop a conflict resolution plan outlining an agreed set of actions for both employees to follow.
7. Track those actions to ensure they are being implemented in the workplace.
8. Review the situation regularly to ensure the conflict has been resolved and both employees are working effectively together.
What happens when two employees just cannot resolve their differences?
There are different approaches a manager can take. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument does a very good assessment of different styles of conflict resolution. Sometimes the manager’s approach can be about consensus. But if the issue is simply too big or the two individuals can’t reach agreement, then the manager takes a more competitive approach and drives through their agenda and says ‘this is what has to happen.’ So there are different styles you can use in different situations that you encounter. It’s about knowing which style is right for each situation.
Sometimes employees don’t get along and it will never work. The two have to figure out how to work together while respecting that they may not like each other. They don’t have to be friends and they don’t have to socialise, but they have to work effectively together and that’s what the manager’s job is; to try and help them figure out how they can work together effectively despite their differences.