One of your direct reports unexpectedly drops a meeting on your calendar. During that conversation, they explain that they’ve been struggling with another team member.
It all started with a disagreement over a collaborative project a few months ago. That argument was never fully addressed, and it continued to cause tension – which is now showing up in the form of snide comments and other passive-aggressive behaviors.
Your direct report asks for your help addressing the conflict so everybody can move forward. To handle this well (and with minimal frustration and hurt feelings), you’ll need to tap into your conflict management skills.
What is conflict management?
Conflict management is a broad term that describes the different processes, strategies, skills, and tools you use to address and resolve a dispute.
Before we get into the actual steps, let’s answer a more specific question: What is conflict management in the workplace?
As a manager, you may be called on from time to time to help resolve a conflict in your organization. Sticking with the example outlined above, conflict management is the process you’ll follow to guide your two direct reports in patching up their strained relationship and moving forward.
What are conflict management skills?
Conflict management skills are the competencies you rely on as you work through disagreements – whether you’re doing so for yourself or are serving as the mediator between other colleagues or your direct reports.
Resolving interpersonal struggles requires patience, empathy, and emotional intelligence. Examples of conflict management skills include actively listening to others’ perspectives and experiences, defining the problem, and identifying a mutually beneficial solution. You’ll need these skills to successfully understand, navigate, and address disagreements and determine how to resolve conflict at work.
Why is conflict management important?
Conflict management as a manager can be challenging, because it’s your responsibility to remain impartial and objective – and the sooner you can address a potential issue, the better. Instead of letting the problem fester, prioritize finding a solution.
Successful conflict management can smooth out even the stickiest of disagreements. A confident and timely approach has several benefits, including:
More efficient resolutions: Believe it or not, managers spend over four hours every week dealing with conflict. Knowing how to handle certain scenarios can cut down on the time you spend addressing issues.
Better employee experience: Conflict is stressful and can make it hard to maintain a collaborative and psychologically safe environment for your team members. Effective conflict management addresses any team friction and maintains your supportive culture.
Improved employee retention: Your overall employee experience impacts your retention, but so does your approach to conflict management. Employees want to feel heard and understood, especially in the thick of conflicts. When that happens, they’re more likely to stick around.
Those are compelling benefits of knowing how to handle conflict as a manager, but there’s one more big reason to strengthen your conflict management skills: conflict is inevitable.
When the majority of workers (64%) say they’ve been part of a workplace where there are conflicts between colleagues, it’s safe to assume that you’ll have to help iron out a dispute at some point in your management career – and it’s important to know how to do so effectively.
How to improve conflict management skills: 6 tips for managers
Conflict itself is natural – it’s conflict resolution that takes effort for most of us. If you’re leading a team, you need to know how to resolve conflict in the workplace. Here are six tips for conflict resolution to get you started.
1. Know your boundaries
Workplaces (whether they’re remote, hybrid, or in-person) are ripe with potential conflicts. Some of those rifts will require your intervention as a manager while some won’t.
The key is to know when you need to step in. For example, you probably don’t want to get in the middle of a back-and-forth feud about who said what at a happy hour. But you probably do need to mediate if a conflict is:
- Impacting work quality and performance
- Negatively affecting your team dynamics and morale
- Becoming a constant topic of conversation across your team
- The people involved haven’t been able to resolve it on their own
Additionally, if a conflict is directly brought to your attention (whether it’s by one of the involved parties or another concerned colleague), then it’s likely serious enough to justify your involvement.
2. Understand the root of the problem
Your best first step is to familiarize yourself with the dispute and determine what triggered it. Understanding exactly what causes conflict seems simple on the surface, but it’s surprisingly nuanced and complex.
Academically speaking, there are eight distinct causes of conflict:
- Conflicting needs
- Conflicting styles
- Conflicting perceptions
- Conflicting goals
- Conflicting pressures
- Conflicting roles
- Different personal values
- Unpredictable policies
In the workplace, the most common conflict triggers are communication differences, unclear expectations, unreasonable time constraints, and opaque performance standards.
Your goal is to understand exactly what is at the root of the disagreement you’re addressing.
In most cases, that will involve talking to the involved parties – either separately or together – to hear their perceptions of what has happened. Practice active listening to ensure you understand each person’s perspective. Avoid judging or jumping in with suggestions or criticisms. For now, focus on understanding the problem, not finding solutions.
During these conversations, a five whys analysis can help you dig deeper than surface-level symptoms. With that framework, you ask “why?” five times to get to the root cause.
When exploring how to resolve conflicts at work, examples are often helpful. Here’s what a five whys analysis might look like when asking coworker A why they have so much tension with coworker B.
Problem: You have a tense relationship with coworker B.
Why? He and I just don’t get along.
Why? He never listens to me.
Why? He charges ahead with whatever he wants to do.
Why? He wants to get the work done as quickly as possible.
Why? He has a lot of time constraints in his role.
Now you know the real problem you need to solve: giving coworker B more time to slow down, especially when he needs to collaborate with coworker A. Addressing that will provide a much more meaningful solution than repairing any of the surface issues.
3. Do your own investigating
Depending on the severity and complexity of the conflict, you might need to do further research to get the full picture (especially since the involved parties will likely have biased perspectives about what’s been happening).
After those conversations, take time to do some independent research. Consider looking at timelines, emails, meeting notes, your project management platform, feedback, performance reviews, or other supplemental materials to build a more solid and thorough understanding of the conflict.
Keep in mind that your goal here isn’t to assign blame or pinpoint the “culprit” behind the conflict. Rather, fully understanding the disagreement will help you identify more beneficial solutions and next steps.
4. Determine your conflict management style
You’re ready to roll up your sleeves and address the conflict head-on with your direct reports. Much like your broader leadership style, you can use several different conflict management styles to work toward a resolution.
As a manager, you’ll likely blend the two most common styles: collaborating and compromising. They have a lot of overlap, but the main difference hinges on the outcome. Here’s the easiest way to think about it:
Collaborating style: Focused on finding a solution where everybody gains something
Compromising style: Focused on finding a solution where everybody makes an equal sacrifice
Put simply, collaborating is “win-win” while compromising is “lose-lose.” That doesn’t inherently make the collaborating style better – compromising has merits when you can’t find a solution that makes everybody happy.
5. Reconvene and work through it
When you’ve landed on your approach and a suitable solution, it’s time to bring everybody back together to talk through it (you might hear this called “interest-based negotiation”).
Ideally, your groundwork helps this conversation run smoothly. As you tackle this discussion, remember to:
- Keep all parties focused on moving toward the solution rather than rehashing the details of the conflict.
- Provide plenty of transparency into how you reached your decision.
- Be open to questions and pushback. Your conflict resolution meeting should be a safe space where people can voice concerns.
- Document the meeting and any resulting decisions for your records.
Issues relating to harassment, discrimination, or other serious accusations will require more in-depth investigation and a more sensitive response than an interpersonal conflict or disagreement.
6. Ask for feedback
One of the best ways to build your conflict management skills as a manager is to ask for feedback. When the dust has settled on that particular disagreement, connect with your involved direct reports to gather their feedback on your approach:
- Do you feel like the conflict is completely resolved?
- How satisfied are you with the outcome of the conflict resolution?
- Is there something you wish I had done differently?
Conflict management takes practice and their insights will help you refine your skills as you move forward in your management career.
Don’t just get through conflicts – make the most of them
It’s normal to shy away from conflict, even as a manager. But when you’re in a leadership position, it’s your responsibility to step up and help your team successfully and respectfully navigate their disputes and disagreements.
When you handle conflicts well, you foster deeper understanding, more trust, and stronger relationships on your team. Put the above tips to work, and you can transform conflicts from setbacks to stepping stones.