When we think about workplace conflict, the assumption is that it mainly happens amongst employees or between employees and managers. But there’s one dynamic that we frequently overlook: when a conflict that arises between managers.
It’s only natural that managers occasionally disagree or experience tension - whether it’s due to working on a shared project, different working styles, or miscommunications. Though resolving workplace conflict at work can be challenging, it can be an opportunity for growth and learning for everyone involved.
In this article, we cover how to identify the signs of conflict between managers on your team and tips for ways to help them resolve any issues.
What are telling signs of conflict in the workplace?
Conflicts manifest in various ways, depending on the people involved and the specific circumstances. Some signs are obvious and others are more subtle.
If there are no other signs pointing to why your team is experiencing the following issues, a conflict between managers may exist.
Decreased productivity or stalling on projects. If there’s a project that’s behind schedule and has more than one of your managers involved, it may be worth taking a closer look at what’s causing the delays. Projects can be brought to a standstill when the project managers can’t agree on how to move forward or make a decision. So if there’s a deadline that keeps getting pushed back with no other obvious explanation, there’s a chance that your managers are experiencing conflict.
Tense meetings or communication. Emotions can be difficult to hide, especially when communicating about disagreements or issues in a professional setting. Be aware of any tensions during meetings. If you notice recurring patterns or sense that there’s discomfort in the air, take note.
Low employee retention or morale. Finally, if you notice that employees from specific teams are leaving in unusual numbers, requesting project changes, or seem low in morale, that may be a possible sign of managerial conflict. When managers are in disagreement, this can cause confusion and frustration amongst employees - pushing them to find a way out of the situation.
Keep in mind that when you’re assessing situations for signs of conflict, you may rely on problematic stereotypes or biases to determine what you think is the root cause of a situation. The best way to get to the root of an issue between employees - managers or otherwise - is to hear from them directly.
So what should you do if you suspect there’s conflict but haven't heard from either party involved? There are other approaches you can take to tactfully bring up the potential conflict.
Open up the conversation. One-on-one meetings are a good chance to let your managers speak up about any conflicts they’re dealing with. Instead of directly asking about the problem (this can cause people to get defensive) check-in and see how current projects are going. Here are a few ways to phrase these questions: “Are you facing any obstacles or challenges with your current projects?” Or “how is the team doing in terms of collaboration?” These prompts can make it easier for managers to raise issues they’re dealing with.
Use tools. If your managers don’t seem comfortable opening up during conversations, surveys can be a helpful tool to identify a workplace conflict. Consider using 360 performance reviews or team-specific pulse surveys to collect data about what the issue may be. You may notice themes that point to the fact that there’s tension between your managers.
Create systems of feedback. Finally, there are ways to establish systems of feedback so that, in the future, your employees and managers proactively come to you if something is wrong. One idea is to have regular check-ins with your managers, as well as hosting “office hours” (especially during important projects) so that there’s enough time built in for people to come to you with problems. Pre- and post-mortems, which are open forums that are run before and after a project, can also be used to collect feedback about what could stand to improve. Again, tools like surveys are also a useful way to allow people to share their feedback about how a certain project is going.
What can you do about it once you've identified the issue?
If you’ve identified that there’s an issue, there are a few ways that you can help your managers work through it.
Don’t view it as a negative. It’s important to recognize that conflicts are inevitable, and in some cases healthy, to experience in the workplace. It’s an opportunity to air out any grievances, overcome differences in working styles, and improve collaboration for the future. When you sit down with your managers, don’t make them feel like they did anything “wrong.” Instead, approach the conversation as a chance for self-improvement.
Create space to give and receive feedback. The best path to finding a resolution is to allow managers to safely share feedback with one another. This isn’t as simple as it sounds, especially if there’s tension between the parties involved. However, there are ways that you can foster psychological safety and trust to make these conversations easier for everyone. First, make the intention of the conversation clear. For example: “we’re here to figure out how we can overcome this disagreement and move forward productively as a team.” This makes it clear what the objective of the meeting is, which is not to cast blame. It’s also important to create a space where managers actually feel comfortable sharing feedback. Make it clear that respect is a must and that you’re there to make sure the conversation stays on the right track.
Facilitate a compromise. Whatever the resolution to the conflict is, it’s critical to make sure that everyone in the process supports the outcome. This means that you, as the facilitator, have to make sure everyone gets an equal opportunity to speak. Not only that but make sure both of your managers are heard. As a neutral party, don’t take sides, be a good listener, and take accurate notes to avoid biases in the future.
Follow up on the conflict. After a solution has been reached, follow up with your managers to see how the implementation is going. You can do this through one-on-one conversations, surveys, or - if they’re comfortable with it - joint debriefs to discuss how things are going. If the solution isn’t working, or if there are aspects that aren’t quite right, work with your managers to come up with an alternative idea. Remember that conflicts don’t disappear overnight, so be patient and keep checking on progress.
While conflict between managers is inevitable in the workplace, it’s a great opportunity to start productive conversations and strengthen collaboration on your teams. Be proactive about recognizing the signs of conflict early and use our recommendations to resolve the issue.
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