Conflict of varying degrees is a natural part of the workplace and is impossible to avoid completely. While managing and resolving conflict is a critical skill for leaders, it’s one that is rarely addressed with formal training for new managers. This is an unfortunate and expensive error, as many front-line leaders see conflict as an exclusively negative experience and therefore seek to avoid or eliminate it through unproductive methods.
Of course, conflict can actually be a very productive phenomenon. When conflict occurs on teams with high trust and respect for one another, it can generate new ideas, boost creativity, and improve innovation. Healthy conflict occurs when team members communicate a difference of opinion/perspective calmly and rationally while continuing to move toward a shared goal together. Teams who experience healthy, productive conflict may disagree about which path to take, but they share the same passion for creating the best results.
But creating an environment where productive conflict can flourish takes effort. And even on high performing, cohesive teams there will certainly be times where unhealthy conflict arises and must be addressed. It’s important that new leaders are equipped with the basic skills and strategies necessary for managing conflict and turning negative behaviors into an acceptable resolution.
It’s important to remember that ignoring conflict will never turn out well. This doesn’t mean a manager should mediate every single disagreement, but failure to create a productive environment will erode the trust and respect the leader has built within the team. Similarly, a leader shouldn’t get involved in every conflict to force a culture of peace. The result will be an artificial environment where conflict and emotions are masked by a happy face. What lies beneath is just as toxic as a heated verbal exchange. Naturally, this is a challenge. Managers have to balance being too dominant in fixing problems with not being conflict-avoidant.
The key to creating a culture where productive conflict can flourish is by laying a foundation of expectations before conflict arises.
- Effective Communication — Communicating effectively is a skill that will never go out of style. Teams should constantly work on building their communication skills through a mix of formal training and consistent coaching. Often, conflict arises just from two parties failing to express their intent, needs, and vision with one another. When individuals are given the tools to express themselves more articulately and clearly, there will be fewer chances for a misunderstanding.
- Active Listening — Along with expressing oneself more effectively, it’s also important to develop active listening skills. Strategies such as asking questions for deeper understanding and repeating back information to seek confirmation can help individuals identify minor miscommunications that could escalate into a larger problem later. Active listening and seeking understanding also provide a more fertile ground for understanding someone’s intent (not just their behaviors).
- Respect — While training soft skills like communication and listening are straightforward, it’s a bit more complicated to build a healthy feeling of respect among coworkers. With new teams, it may take significant time for each person to build up enough experiences that turn into confidence, trust, and respect. As a leader, you can encourage stronger relationships that lead to respect by being vocal about why you respect each person. For example, when one person may seem critical, you’ll help others see the potentially positive impact that person can have by explicitly stating how important it is to have an analytical thinker who can play Devil’s Advocate. Suddenly, the person who seemed disruptive and negative is seen as a valuable contributor who encourages critical thinking.
- Acknowledging Individual Differences — At times, the conflict may not be due to the work itself, but rather a conflict in personality preferences. When one person’s “planfulness” and another person’s need to be spontaneous/flexible collide, each person becomes stressed as they’re pushed out of their comfort zone. Personality conflicts can be particularly difficult to resolve because with each new conflict, individuals tend to become even more entrenched in their ways and fail to flex to the other person’s preferences. No one wants to feel like they’re always being forced to accommodate another person’s needs. Again, this is a place where it’s necessary to bring the topic to the surface before conflict happens. Helping people understand the needs, preferences, and styles of others (as well as themselves) gives them an opportunity to understand the reason behind the behavior. Suddenly, one might realize that Joe isn’t a procrastinator, he just doesn’t want to close himself off to new ideas/opportunities as he works through a project.
Beyond formal training and skill building, the leader’s most important role in managing conflict is to model effective conflict resolution for others to see. Leaders who openly display their ability to identify shared goals, seek mutual understanding, express thoughts without extreme emotions, and find opportunities for cooperation/compromise set the stage for others to follow in their footsteps.