No one likes to deal with conflict. Who wouldn’t prefer our workplaces to be all sunshine and rainbows, where everybody gets along with each other and nothing ever makes us angry? Sadly, this is just not possible. With an estimated cost of £28.5 billion to UK organisations due to conflict-induced lack of productivity and ill health, disagreements are an unavoidable part of life, including our work lives, so it’s crucial for managers to learn how to handle it.
The best way to instill good practices is by taking part in one of the many robust management development programmes available, most of which include a whole range of conflict resolution training. These courses will offer you “a wide range of solutions to give managers the necessary skills, behaviours and tools to lead and motivate their staff more effectively and to really make a significant difference to your company,” according to the specialists at MTD Training. That being said, there are a variety of simple actions you can take to minimise the impact of conflict outside of attending one of these programmes.
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1. Don’t beat around the bush
It can be very tempting to ignore conflict. Just brush it under the carpet and hope it disappears. Unfortunately, we all know this causes the exact opposite in most cases — it festers, grows, and becomes much bigger than it should have been had we dealt with it in the first place. And always at the worst possible time.
What’s more, even if you handle it in a superficial manner, it may come back to haunt you should another disagreement occur. Instead, take calculated and full action every time a clash arises, even if it seems minor to you. That way you can move on in the long-term and not just the short-term. Be direct yet sensitive, ensure all sides are heard, and insist a resolution happens in a timely manner without postponement.
2. Detach from your biases
We don’t want to admit it, but all of us have some biases. Maybe your favourite employee is squabbling with a staff member who isn’t as friendly with you. Your unconscious bias could persuade you to take the former’s side even when they’re wrong. Perhaps you have implicit ideas you’re not even aware of about certain groups, be it women or minorities, that will cloud your judgement in the case of a conflict with individuals that belong to them.
It’s never done maliciously, and we all have some prejudice that impacts our behaviour towards other people. “These biases are often displayed subtly and without premeditation or intention: through body language, mannerisms and conversation. That can make them difficult to overcome,” explain diversity and inclusion training specialists at EW Group. Once you are aware you may have these, and actively try to avoid them, you’ll be halfway there. Focus on solutions rather than who’s right or wrong.
3. Be an active listener
As a manager, it is likely that you have quite a strong personality. This is a good quality trait, and it means you have brilliant ideas and thoughts that you aren’t afraid to share. However, in the process of conflict resolution, you may need to slow the pace, sit back and listen. No, we don’t mean prepare a script in your head for your response. Genuinely listen. More likely than not, the main objective they have is for you to understand where they’re coming from, so even if your reply takes a few seconds it’s okay as long as you absorbed what they put forward.
Try to avoid fiddling with paper, checking your phone, looking at email notifications or anything else that will distract you from listening. Ask questions if you don’t understand something — don’t put words in their mouths. It’s also recommended that you pay careful attention to your body language. Is it open? Are you conveying the message that you’re there to listen?
4. Practice empathy
60% of employees are likely to stay with a company for three years or longer if they feel cared for (compared to only 7% of staff who don’t), yet 85% of workers believe that empathy is still undervalued by organisations. So, it is clear that managers need to emphasise their skills on that front. This is particularly true when it comes to conflict resolution and mediation — no one wants to approach their manager with an issue or disagreement only to be faced with indifference or anger.
When you handle the problem, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Would you feel the same in their position? Could it be that there’s something to what they’re saying? Aim to connect the dots: what are they feeling right now and how does it translate into their behaviour? Make sure they understand you’re acknowledging their feelings and want to come to a resolution that would be favourable to them, even if there’s still disagreement.
5. Know when to go to HR (and when not to)
Presumably, your business has a whole bunch of documents that were pre-prepared for conflict situations. Whether it’s a code of conduct, employee handbook, value statement or all of the above, in many cases, an answer can be found before having to involve HR. A simple conversation may suffice. Regardless, it is important to document these instances so that if the issue repeats, there is a place to start from.
Unfortunately, not all conflicts can be resolved like this, and although it’s preferable to try and keep minor problems within the department, sometimes it is vital to involve HR. It can be because there is more than one concern regarding that particular employee, because the matter persists, or merely because it is too substantial to handle on your own. Whatever the case, it’s important to involve HR at the right moment, so they can help guide or develop a plan, set timelines, and provide an outsider’s view on the matter.