One of the most common failures of managers today is the failure to effectively handle workplace conflict. We’ve all experienced a conflict between employees that derailed teamwork, dissolved trust, broke down communications, robbed us of productivity, and took the joy out of our work. So it’s natural to assume that we need to avoid conflicts in the future. You may have promised yourself you would not let that happen again. You may have communicated to your team that conflict won’t be tolerated. This is the “save your drama for your mama” leadership approach. After all, there’s too much important work to be done. “Why can’t these people just get along?”
Added to that, some leaders’ personalities (mine included) feel mentally and emotionally drained by personal conflict. Our tendency is to isolate from people whose opinions and ideas disagree with ours.
But the truth is, avoiding a conflict is usually the worst strategy for dealing with it. This is such an important issue for supervisors and executives, I dedicate a whole block of my Leadership Excellence Course to helping leaders develop a solid strategy for resolving everyday workplace conflict. Let me share some highlights of that training with you.
Supervisors, when conflict happens at work, whether you’re one of the parties in it or not, it’s important to engage it rather than avoid it. Avoiding conflict can often lead to:
- Further ambiguity about roles, goals or expectations
- Rumors and opportunity for gossip
- Loss of trust
- Breakdown in teamwork
- Significant loss in productivity
And we all know that loss of productivity means loss of profitability! If that doesn’t motivate executives to learn healthy habits for handling conflict, I don’t know what will. In fact, effectively and consistently managing team conflict can actually IMPROVE team productivity and, ultimately, profitability. OK, so how can a manager effectively leverage conflict to create a stronger, more productive and profitable team?
The first step is to understand what conflict really is. Conflict is simply a condition where people have different expectations, desires, ideas or needs related to a common resource, project or concept. Conflict does NOT imply a lack of character, a lack of leadership skill, an inferior personality trait, or even a value judgment about a person. Conflict naturally happens when people work together toward any goal they care about. Because people (that includes you) naturally think differently than 75 per cent of their colleagues, conflict naturally and regularly occurs between good people, especially when they care deeply about what they’re doing.
Second, choose to believe the best about those involved in the conflict. Assuming that their intentions are honorable, just as yours are, takes the sting out of the conflict and allows us to begin dealing with the issue from the right frame of mind. This is harder than it may appear, because of the way our brains are wired. When your brain senses conflict, it begins releasing adrenaline, which causes your “fight or flight” survival instincts to kick in. And adrenaline is not the smartest thing in the world. It cannot tell the difference between a verbal attack and a physical one. This is why we must make a conscious decision in that moment to act appropriately, not react.
Third, look for a win/win solution. Engage the people in the process of collaboration. For competitive personalities, this will require a more cooperative attitude toward other parties in the conflict. For more accommodating personalities, this will require asking them to be more assertive. Different personalities approach conflict differently, but it’s possible to draw any personality into a collaborative process. (More on that in a future article.)
Of course, a situation could occur where collaboratively working for a win/win solution is not the appropriate course of action. But you should think of those scenarios as the exception, not the rule. The collaboration process takes extra effort, but that effort pays off in building a team that will perform at a higher level in the future. When a team learns to consistently practice healthy collaboration strategies, trust grows between team members, and future conflicts can be dealt with more effectively, increasing long-term productivity and profitability for your organization.
Manager, if you’d like to become a guru at effectively and consistently managing conflict in your team, I’d recommend attending my Leadership Excellence Course in Anchorage or Seattle-Tacoma. Click here for all the details on dates, locations, and discounts. If you live outside of Alaska or Washington, I can connect you with a Leadership Excellence Course led by one of my Academy Leadership colleagues in your area.