If you want to help your team manage conflict, teach them how to use it to create conversation instead.
We know that conversation helps de-escalate conflict in many settings. The vast majority of things that are truly conflicts - the types that have people running for the door or yelling at each other - happen because we missed the moment to de-escalate that conflict before it blew up.
Most managers forget that a key part of their role is to nudge their colleagues towards tension and discomfort so that the things that might otherwise become conflicts have no energy behind them. It’s part of what it means to become a Good Authority, to see yourself more as a coach and less as a savior.
As a leader, the key is to help your team identify moments when they can be proactive and discuss their issues. Initiating healthy conflict in those early moments can lead to it getting resolved quicker and more efficiently.
In the case of conflict, managers can use a few strategies to identify the moments they’re missing and figure out a new approach for what to do when the next one arises.
Taking early action to avoid conflict
Let’s say someone on your team comes by your office for their regular 1:1. Halfway through the meeting, you pick up on something they say about not hearing back on an email they sent to another department.
“No big deal,” you think to yourself, it happens all the time. But while it may be true that it does happen all the time, that doesn’t mean you should be okay with it.
Step 1: The Mention
It turns out that those kinds of specific moments are opportunities to take action. And the first step we advise is utilizing “The Mention”. The Mention is the first step in The Accountability Dial, the feedback and conversation methodology we teach at Refound.
Stop the conversation when you notice that moment. Bring your curiosity to the moment by saying something that encourages your colleague to circle back to their comment.
"Hey, you just mentioned _____. That seems pretty frustrating for you, it would be for me too, can you tell me more about what happened and how things got stuck?”
Your end-goal is to coach your colleague on how they might broach this subject. One option is to do so in a more direct way than they already have. Another is to take a different approach or angle than they may have tried. You can’t advise either way without understanding the approach they took the first time.
Step 2: The Invitation
Okay, now let’s say a few days go by. Things seem fine, but you notice your employee is being a little bit more stand-offish in a team meeting than they usually are - a bit more formal than you’re used to.
This is an opportunity to circle back on the first conversation when you notice that there seems to be a pattern building. You’re not mad, you’re simply being the human being who cares about your direct report and wants to help.
What does the second step sound like in conversation?
"Hey, I know we talked briefly about the struggle with getting timely responses from that team, I noticed you were a bit more formal with them in the standup this morning. Is that connected?”
By investing in this critical next moment with your team member — on The Accountability Dial we call it “The Invitation”— you give them the opportunity to self-reflect, you are inviting them to consider that a pattern may be emerging. It’s your way of saying that you care, that there’s something that you’re seeing that you think would be useful for them to give a little more thought to.
Using these two simple leadership training and coaching tools is key to helping your team avoid conflict. By encouraging the little conversations they need to have with their teammates, you can help ensure that the vast majority of conflicts never get to a level where anybody needs to be truly upset or raise their tone with anyone else.
Next Steps in the Accountability Dial
Sometimes it isn’t enough to take these first two steps to get ahead of conflict. Sometimes, your colleagues still can’t resolve the problem this way and will need you to step in and take a more active role.
The remaining three steps in The Accountability Dial are there for you in those moments — The Conversation, The Boundary, and the Limit — but here’s the caution: Most colleagues will pull you into managing their conflicts for them and they may be skillful in how they do that - both consciously and unconsciously. It’s a skill many of us learned as young children and those are skills that aren’t easy to unwind.
If this happens to you, hold on to your seat, take a deep breath, and find a way to ask a question or make an open-ended observation like the ones above. Boundaries and consequences are critical but be methodical as you get there. Trust that the people on your team are more resourceful, more capable, and more courageous than you think they are.
Embracing this part of your role, that a big part of what you’re there to do is not to track and manage tasks but to nudge people back into themselves, is the heart of what it means to be a people leader in the modern world. It also happens to be the way to become the leader your team is waiting for.
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Jonathan Raymond is the Founder & CEO at Refound and the author of Good Authority. He's spent 20 years building careers in business development and personal growth before realizing he could have the best of both worlds by starting his own company. Now, he uses those skills to advise CEOs and organizational leaders on how to create a people-first culture that drives results. His goal is to provide Refound’s clients with a partner they can trust and a program that gives managers an experience of how they can make work a better place, one conversation at a time. Jonathan is an avid but average surfer, a dedicated dad to two incredible girls, and will never give up on the New York Knicks.