Most people don’t get into management to solve workplace conflicts. But it’s still a big (and challenging!) part of the job.
In fact, research shows that a typical manager spends 25 to 40 per cent of their time dealing with workplace issues that run the gamut from squabbling over desks to clashes over a coveted promotion.
“While the issues that cause conflict vary in importance, your relationships to teammates and the relationships among teammates must be functional if you hope to have a productive environment,” writes Tom Fox in the Washington Post.
“As a leader, you want to allow for a certain amount of creative tension, but the moment that conflict becomes counterproductive, you need to act.”
In other words, good managers don’t tolerate unprofessional behaviour in their employees.
“It will really poison the workplace and lead to bad staff morale,” says Cal Jungwirth, Robert Half’s director of permanent placement services.
So how can managers mitigate conflicts to keep their office running as smoothly as possible?
It all comes down to communication.
Have a conversation
According to Fox, managers need to treat the employees as adults and ask them to resolve their differences, and let them know they will be held accountable if they don’t.
“Sit down with employees – separately or together – and make your work-related outcomes and behavioral expectations clear,” he writes.
These conversations can also help to define the problem at the heart of the conflict. At University of California, Berkeley, for example, supervisors and managers are encouraged to ask a few key questions: what is the stated problem? What is the negative impact on the work or relationships? And are differing personality styles part of the problem?
“Meet with employees separately at first and question them about the situation,” says its guide to managing conflict in the workplace. “Make sure you really understand what employees are saying by asking questions and focusing on their perception of the problem.”
Make a game plan
These one-on-one conversations are crucial to formulating a game plan to resolve the situation and keep your team functioning.
Once you have talked the situation out, UC Berkeley’s conflict resolution guide suggests having your employees come up with multiple courses of action. You then can choose which action(s) you want to take as a manager, and then make sure everyone involved buys in.
Remember: it’s important to get real agreement from everyone. “Total silence may be a sign of passive resistance,” says the guide.
According to Joanne Loberg, a Vancouver-based career consultant and executive coach with JL Careers Inc., this is the point in the process where managers should also be offering coaching and support.
“Ask what can be done to shift gears, and ask how you can support them,” she says. “Ultimately, [you] should be coaching the individuals to have more effective communication skills.”
Follow up and re-evaluate
Once you have a game plan and support network in place, it’s a good idea to schedule a follow-up meeting in two or so weeks to check in on how your team is doing. If all goes well, your clashing team members will be getting along just fine by your check-up.
But what if they don’t?
One option is to bring in an outside facilitator to assess the situation, says UC Berkeley.
“In some cases the conflict becomes a performance issue, and may become a topic for coaching sessions, performance appraisals, or disciplinary action,” says its guide.
According to Jungwirth, it’s also important to document ongoing poor conduct so there is a hard copy to pass along to HR or a higher-up manager, if needed. “If repeated poor behavior is taking place, there has to be a ramification,” he says.