How to manage conflict effectively
Team members not pulling together? David Liddle offers tips to help managers restore harmony.
Reading time: 5 minutes
Conflict is an inevitable part of working life. While some conflict, if managed well, can create an opportunity for fresh thinking and innovation, dysfunctional conflict can occur for any number of reasons.
Direct reports fall out with their managers, colleagues with different personality types or working styles clash, teams become embroiled in disputes over who’s responsible for what, and how projects should be run.
In its recent report Managing Conflict in the Modern Workplace, the CIPD suggests that just over a third of employees have experienced some form of interpersonal conflict over the past year, either in the form of an isolated dispute or an ongoing difficult relationship.
Managers are on the frontline when it comes to sorting out everything from minor spats between peers to more serious allegations of bullying or harassment. But the reality is that many lack the courage, confidence and capability to manage conflict effectively.
This is hardly surprising, given the lack of training offered to line managers to help them with the people management aspects of their role.
The CIPD’s research shows only two-fifths have been given training to help with issues such as dealing with difficult conversations, managing absence and performance, or resolving conflict.
Put bluntly, organisations are leaving managers between a rock and a hard place. The business expects them to build and manage engaged, high-performing teams, but fails to give them the support they need.
Perception versus reality
There are some interesting dynamics at play, when it comes to managers and the role they have to play in creating happy, healthy and harmonious workplaces.
First, while managers are clearly in prime position to identify and manage conflict, they are also (often unwittingly) the cause of it.
Maybe their style of performance management doesn’t sit well with a direct report; perhaps team members perceive some people are treated more favourably than others; or staff feel they are being put under unreasonable pressure to deliver work or meet targets.
The key is to invite people to talk. Adult-to-adult, open, honest dialogue will help get people back on track
Second, there appears to be a gap between managers’ perceived level of capability to deal with conflict – and the reality on the ground.
The research tells us that nine out of 10 managers believe they would nip conflict in the bud, and that they understand what kind of behaviour constitutes bullying.
Speak to employees, and a different story emerges. When asked how effective their managers were at dealing with conflict, 32% said they usually made the situation worse.
By overestimating their own capabilities, managers are likely to underestimate the impact of unresolved conflicts.
A pressing skills gap
The ability to spot the signs of conflict and find constructive and compassionate ways of resolving it has never been more important.
We are living in challenging and ambiguous times. Artificial intelligence and digitisation are driving profound changes in the way work is being designed and delivered.
New business models (the gig economy, platform enterprises) are emerging and competition is coming from unexpected sources.
No wonder people are stressed and anxious and our workplaces are becoming increasingly fractured.
So, what are the core skills managers need if they are to manage conflict effectively and create truly inclusive, fair and just cultures where their people can feel fully engaged to perform at their best?
Knowing the signs
Managers need to have their antennae constantly on alert for signs that all is not well within their teams. Rising levels of stress-related absence, demotivated employees, communication breakdowns and people whispering by the water cooler are all red flags.
Cliques and opposing camps begin to form, gossip is rife and people start to blame each other for whatever is going wrong and compete rather than collaborate.
These are all early warning signs that conflict is starting to bubble up and the manager needs to intervene.
Understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict
Not all conflict is bad. In fact, healthy conflict is one of the key drivers of innovation in the business. Managers need to understand the difference between functional conflict and dysfunctional disputes.
Healthy conflict is where people are working together, engaging in robust but respectful debate, with a view to coming up with the best possible solution.
Dysfunctional conflict is where people get locked into unhelpful right/wrong, win/lose mindsets, and incivility and lack of respect for others starts to take hold. Left unchecked, this can soon descend into bullying, harassment or discrimination.
Having the courage to tackle issues head-on
There’s a tendency to hope that if you ignore conflict, it will go away. That never happens. Managers need to have the courage to nip conflict in the bud as soon as they see it arising.
The key is to invite people to talk about how they are feeling and encourage them to hear one another in an empathic, compassionate way. Adult-to-adult, open, honest dialogue will help get people back on track.
Setting the ground rules
Managers have a key role to play in setting the ground rules for how conflict will be managed should it arise. It is about acknowledging that there will be times when people will disagree, and that occasional clashes of beliefs, values and goals will arise.
But that when that happens, the aim will be to resolve those disputes collaboratively and compassionately, using informal approaches, such as mediation and facilitated discussions. Formal processes have their place, but should not be the first port of call.
Creating the right climate
Managers need to take responsibility for creating fair and just environments, where people feel they can speak up freely and are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and their mistakes.
Managers and leaders need to role-model the behaviours they want to encourage, engaging in collaborative and constructive face-to-face dialogue across organisational boundaries and within teams, embracing co-operative problem-solving.
The result will be a workplace where people can learn and draw from issues at work, rather than seeking blame and retribution.
About the author
David Liddle is founder and CEO of The TCM Group
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