Though many of us try our hardest to avoid it, conflict at work is inevitable.
In an ideal world, no one wants to fight, walk on eggshells around colleagues, or escalate issues to HR. But people differ in many ways - personally, socially, and professionally, which can make it hard to get along.
Managers all have different working styles, which can impact shared projects and often make it necessary to find a middle ground. And even when they share a common goal, they sometimes want to take drastically different paths to achieve it.
As a manager, when you run into conflict, you might become stuck trying to figure out how to navigate the situation with your peer. You might not be sure about which conflict management process is best in a given situation, or if your company has resources and best practices to address it. And it can be hard to confront someone you have a personal relationship with, especially when it’s about work-related issues that impact both of your goals. Further, even when you do find a way to arrange some mediation, it can be nerve-racking to stay impartial, effective, empathetic, and constructive.
Thankfully, conflict can be hugely beneficial to your growth - as a communicator, manager, and leader. Differences can help people collaborate well and achieve goals faster. So, if you’re having issues managing a conflict between yourself and a peer, we’ve put together tactics to help you avoid long-term damage to your relationships and halted progress on shared projects.
Methods for managing conflict as a manager
Managing conflict well can have very positive impacts on your work-life, team environment, and company success. Managers who find ways to resolve conflict can come out of it with better relationships, and with a stronger ability to see new perspectives. Those managers are then able to coach their direct reports in developing the same conflict management skills. Additionally, compromising, negotiating, or reaching a middle ground can lead to goals being met faster and more efficiently.
Here are five steps that will enable you to identify an issue, find a solution, and track your progress as you resolve it.
Step 1: Identify the source and root cause of the conflict
Addressing conflict while you’re in the middle of it can be daunting, especially as people tend to either feel responsible for the problem or like the other party would feel blamed if they raise the topic. So remind yourself that conflict can arise for many different reasons - big or small. The issue might be the result of anything from a simple misunderstanding to a broken process that is, unfortunately, impacting your personal relationship with a colleague.
However, it’s also important to check in with yourself about what exactly is going on with you: are you particularly stressed out about something else, or is there historical context to this situation that could cause you to project more animosity than you’re aware of? Are you having an issue with a person, or a system, or something internal that you’re challenged by and possibly projecting on a colleague?
While many issues aren’t immediately solvable, having an awareness of your role in the problem, as well as what you bring to the table, will help you feel more grounded in addressing the conflict.
Once you’ve determined the root of the issue, approach the person you’ve chosen to involve in the conflict resolution. Present them with a clear idea of what’s happening from your perspective.
Questions to ask yourself/each other:
- When did the conflict first arise?
- What contributed to this conflict being formed?
- How is the conflict impacting your ability to get your job done?
Step 2: Identify how the conflict is currently being handled
According to research, there are different ways that conflicts can be resolved.
1. Competing: You center the conflict around yourself, your correctness, and your approach to resolution - wholly believing that you are right and the other side is wrong.
2. Accommodating: You cooperate and comply with everything your colleague says, all in an effort to avoid further conflict.
3. Avoiding: You avoid the issue by suggesting it be resolved later (or never) or completely avoid any effort to resolve it.
4. Compromising: You cooperate to find a solution but only to a certain degree. Your aim is to find middle ground and compromise that partially satisfies both sides.
5. Collaborating: You believe that both sides can be fully satisfied with the resolution, which typically means that you exercise mutual respect and good communication skills.
Questions to ask yourselves/each other:
- Of the five methods above, which do you identify with? How do you tend to approach conflict?
- What have you been doing to manage the conflict so far?
- What would you like to see change in how the situation is being handled by all parties involved?
Step 3: Collaboratively explore solutions
Even if you feel like you’re 100% right in how you want to handle and resolve the conflict, keep in mind that all parties involved should have input into how the issue is resolved. Everyone’s workload, background, and perspective should be considered. And if you feel like you need “neutral” drivers to help you come up with a solution, align your solution with a business or team goal - something all interested parties already align on.
Questions to ask yourselves/each other:
- Is there overlap on how the suggested solutions would be implemented?
- In each plan, what might or might not work for all parties involved?
- What would each person involved consider to be an acceptable solution?
- How have other similar issues been solved by our company?
Step 4: Settle on a solution that all parties support
There are likely a few roads you can take while managing conflict. At times you might be able to apologize, forgive, and move on. Other times will require a new system to be put in place, or require everyone involved to take long-term steps, and in doing so, help solve a deeper, more complex issue within the organization.
Just make sure that whatever conclusion you come to suits all parties involved, as much as possible. You or your colleague might have to bend to the needs of the other or the company, but it’s important for all to agree that the chosen path forward is likely to provide resolution.
Questions to ask yourselves/each other:
- Does this solution serve everyone’s needs?
- Who else might need to be looped in to help you implement this solution?
- How will we implement this solution?
- How will we track progress on this solution?
Step 5: Measure progress on the issue being resolved: Set goals and track them to make sure that all parties involved are staying on track. Following up, debriefing, and keeping an eye on issues can keep them from bubbling up again. This can be done through anonymous surveys, regular 1:1 check-ins between all parties involved or debriefs at every stage of the solution action plan.
While measuring progress, try to remain flexible. When you’re dealing with a conflict that you or the organization never experienced before, the solution you agreed on may have seemed right at a given time but might not be working out the way you imagined. Speak up if you feel like it’s not working for you, and consistently check in with your colleagues about whether or not they’re finding the solution satisfactory.
Step 6: Reap the benefits of conflict
Even if your ideal workplace involves zero conflicts, remember the benefits of disagreeing. Through conflict management, you can learn to actively listen, consider other perspectives, find creative solutions, and receive and give critical feedback. If you prepare yourself and your team to do so, it can mean great results and new ways of working together.
Most importantly, remember that not seeing eye to eye with someone doesn’t have to be relationship-ending. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed, and hitting roadblocks as you try to navigate your issues isn’t worth beating yourself up over. Treat these situations as an opportunity for growth and learning for both sides and along every step of the way.
Managing conflict in the workplace: How to get ahead of it
Specific tools can help you get ahead of conflicts in the workplace, such as 360 performance reviews and manager training. 360 reviews can be a great way to help yourself and colleagues participate in positive review processes. And manager training in soft skills could help you learn deeply rooted strategies for effectively resolving conflict. Moving forward, consider training opportunities that can help you and your team feel better equipped to resolve issues before the escalate.
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