The summer temperature feels great at the pool or the beach, but it’s no fun when things heat up in the office. Whether it takes the form of personal disagreements that spill over into work or constructive differences of opinion, some type of conflict is inevitable in any type of organization. As a leader, how you manage these disagreements will ultimately determine the long-term impact these situations have on your company.
In my work with organizations of all types, I regularly see leaders who don’t achieve results because they avoid resolving conflicts or exacerbate difficult situations with ineffective solutions.
When it comes to conflict management, an effective leader first determines whether it’s truly a conflict to be managed, or whether it is behavior that is simply inappropriate at work. Disagreements among employees who care about the organization and take pride in their work are inevitable, are actually welcome and a sign of a healthy organization. Aggressive or toxic behavior by or among employees, while unfortunately may also be inevitable, should be dealt with and halted as a performance issue.
This isn’t easy, even for the most seasoned manager. Here are three approaches that can help.
Stop Bad Behavior Early
When facing a personal disagreement that has spilled over into the workplace, it’s important for managers to avoid getting drawn into the substance of the problem or trying to manage the personal relationship that is the source of the disagreement. Instead focus on any inappropriate workplace behavior that has resulted from the personal conflict — loud arguments in the office, for example — and make it clear that it cannot continue at work.
Another example would be an employee who doesn’t want to be bothered in the morning and rudely snaps at colleagues who approach him before he’s had his morning coffee. Make it clear to the difficult employee that lashing out at co-workers is inappropriate and unprofessional workplace behavior. Don’t encourage this behavior by simply avoiding him before his coffee, or instructing others to steer clear. This isn’t conflict management — it’s enabling the trouble-maker’s behavior.
Make Room For Healthy Conflict
Some disagreements are vital to the success of any organization. As professional speaker and brand and leadership consultant Tim McClure said: “The biggest concern for any organization should be when their most passionate people become quiet.”
Productive conflict occurs when people feel so passionate or engaged about their work that their disagreements about a business idea or approach result in heated discussions. These types of differences of opinion are usually healthy and can be an opportunity to achieve better results — but they must be accompanied by a supportive organizational culture.
Encourage constructive conflict by asking employees to share information and their ideas, and respond to others’ inputs in a way that builds and maintains trust and relationships. If employees fear speaking up when they disagree or want to address a difficult situation, they won’t. Or they may do so in a way that damages trust and relationships, like blind-siding others, or side conversations. This can also happen in the “nicest” of organizations where employees avoid conflict — and therefore important disagreements — because they like each other and want things to be pleasant. Professional, respectful and assertive communication among colleagues builds trust and relationships, encourages differences of opinions and drives the best results.
If your organization does not have this type of culture — perhaps passive-aggressive and aggressive behavior is more common — assertive behavior and open disagreements can come as a shock to some employees. In this case, you may have to ease into this new approach.
Start by gathering your team and explain your intention to create a culture in which team members can challenge each other and disagree in a respectful way. Lay the foundation with some vocabulary or ground rules for how to disagree. It’s not easy for most people to say they disagree or to hear that someone else disagrees with their approach. But it can get easier over time with a supportive and collaborative environment.
Deal with Conflict Directly and Tactfully
Finally, for any type of conflict or difficult situation, deal with individuals directly. Don’t talk about it with others and hope it goes away. Focus on the issue or behavior rather than the person. Be specific, direct and honest. Assume there are two sides to everything — the way you see it and the way the other person sees it. Don’t be offensive — and don’t look to be offended. Approach discussions with the end in mind — resolution of the issue without damage to the relationship. Remember that word choice, and how you say something matter. The way we communicate is both the quickest way to make a situation difficult, and the quickest way to make it better.
These approaches will help you avoid meltdowns, or cool things down if and when they happen. A culture and environment that encourage productive disagreements and address bad behavior, can lead to a great place to work for everyone.
Success Labs is a leadership development and management consulting firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For more than 25 years, our expert team of consultants has worked with hundreds of companies to explore their business potential and improve their company and cultural performance.Contact us to get proactive about your people strategy.