How to Manage Employee Conflicts More Effectively

Here’s some advice on resolving inevitable workplace disputes

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Workplace conflicts are inevitable. In fact, a survey conducted by the American Management Association found that managers spend almost a quarter of each workday managing conflicts of one kind or another.

But resolution of those conflicts in an equitable fashion can be equally commonplace, if handled correctly. In the end, minimizing conflict boils down to effective communication and mutual respect between employees, says Lauren Schieffer, a certified speaking professional and a consultant on workplace issues.

“Every organization has drama and conflict,” says Schieffer, the author of Colonels of Wisdom – A Daughter’s Reflection on Leadership. (Her father was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S Air Force.) “I help them dump the drama.”

One of the core concepts that Schieffer recommends is teaching employees to treat each other with respect, which includes communicating respectfully.

“Even if you don’t respect someone, you must treat them with respect. When we’re treated in a disrespectful manner, it shuts down our willingness to communicate, negotiate or continue a conversation at all,” she says. “So you need to start with this concept where you choose to treat other people with respect, whether you like what they think, say or do. That then leads to respectful communication.”

Remain Impartial

For managers, resolving conflicts between two employees can be fraught with risk. But by following some basic steps, they can minimize potential pitfalls. A critical part of the resolution is impartiality, which can be reinforced in two ways. 

The first involves a meeting with both employees.

“It’s really important to assess a conflict with everyone in the room, face-to-face,” Schieffer says.

This should occur even if both parties feel uncomfortable in each other’s presence.

Sometimes a face-to-face meeting isn’t possible and a manager must meet with the two parties separately. In those cases, it’s very important for each employee to understand that your role is to moderate over the dispute, not be a confidant.

“As such, nothing is said in confidence,” Schieffer says. “They need to know that anything said will be communicated to the other person, to avoid the appearance of taking sides.”

You can also reinforce impartiality by beginning with a validation of each person’s value to the team.

“Make sure both people know it’s not your job to take sides. It’s your job to establish an environment where they can move forward productively,” Schieffer says.

The next step is establishing some ground rules. Each person should get a chance to state his or her case about the conflict — without the other person interrupting. That’s critical because when people get interrupted, they tend to shut down and stop talking. 

“Furthermore, if you allow one person to keep interrupting, you’re implying that one person’s input is more valuable. Plus, the mere process of interrupting is disrespectful,” Schieffer says.

Just the Facts

During the process, it’s also important to address only facts and behaviors, not personalities.

“You can address the behavior without attacking the person,” Schieffer says.  

As an example, Schieffer cites two fictitious employees named Ken and Barbie who are in conflict because the latter always interrupts the former during meetings.

“In this case, the fact that Barbie consistently interrupts Ken in staff meetings is a behavior,” she says. “Now Ken could construe that she’s just rude, but that’s a judgment about a personality characteristic. She could just as easily be an excitable and enthusiastic person.

“It’s a given that everyone will have perceptions about other people. It’s normal and natural for human beings to put our own spin on things. But it’s critically important for managers who moderate conflicts on their teams to always bring conversations back to the facts, not someone’s interpretation of the facts. You can’t read peoples’ minds or define their intentions. In all my experience, I’ve never met anyone who’s a member of the psychic network.”

When both parties have had their say, it’s helpful to ask each person what they’d like to see the other person do to resolve the conflict. Making them come up with a solution is invaluable because people are more likely to support a solution they helped create, Schieffer says.

“If you define a resolution and impose it on both parties, then it’s viewed as a prison sentence, as opposed to asking them what they’d like to see happen to bring the conflict to a resolution,” she says. “This may take a couple of rounds of discussions, and you have to rein them in if they go back into blaming and name-calling.”

Forging a Compromise

If the solutions provided are at odds with each other, then it’s time to hammer out a compromise. Alternately, managers may sometimes find that conflicts defuse themselves by merely giving both sides an opportunity to air their grievances before an impartial mediator, as well as define what they want to get out of that mediation.

“Sometimes that compromise is simply defined by, ‘We’ve established the fact that we’ve defined the conflict — now can you live with it?’” Schieffer says. “Most conflicts arise because people feel like they’re not being heard or valued. I very rarely find that people choose to be in conflict because they hate each other. Usually they’re just passionate about something or feel their contributions aren’t valued. They feel better once they feel heard.”

After resolving a dispute, managers also need to keep monitoring the situation — keep touching base with both parties to be sure things are copacetic.

One more thought: Managers and employees should also realize that conflict isn’t always bad. Debates about strategies, processes and objectives often can lead to innovations and even strengthen employee relationships. But employees must do so respectfully, Schieffer says.

“Conflict isn’t inherently bad. It creates energy, and that’s a good thing,” she says. “How that energy is channeled determines if it’s destructive and leads to drama or is constructive and leads to change. You need to create a workplace with compassionate accountability.”

In the end, given the large differences in employees’ values, perceptions, backgrounds, communication styles and so forth, it’s a wonder that conflicts don’t occur more often. Communication can be an especially vexing problem, particularly with so much reliance on nonverbal methods such as texting and emailing, which are easily subject to misinterpretation. All these factors combine to make it more difficult to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts.

“Sometimes the best we can do is just focus on common ground and build some kind of bridge on that,” Schieffer says. “And start each day with a conscious decision to treat everyone with respect.”



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