How do managers generally deal with conflict between two employees?
Rarely do workplace conflicts just explode out of nowhere. Two people don’t have a heated argument in a hallway the moment some sort of disagreement occurs.
That type of conflict grows over time.
There’s typically a very clear buildup stage when a conflict is developing, expanding to the point where it boils over. But many times, the parties involved don’t recognize they’re in that buildup phase. They’re too close to the issue to see what’s happening.
As their leader, you need to be able to recognize an advancing issue. Sensing growing tension is the one skill you really need when it comes to defusing conflicts between employees.
Because when you recognize the buildup, you have a chance to work on the “build-down.” You have an opportunity to manage the tension in a way that’s productive, before it erupts.
Why Conflicts Occur
When employees clash, they’re generally operating in a zero-sum manner—someone comes out on top, while the other person loses out.
We used to think of negotiations as distributive bargaining. There is a fixed “pie,” and we are trying to cut it up to get more. But the best negotiators don’t think like that. They think of “expanding the pie” and creating a solution that accounts for the needs, values, and fears of each party.
This is the benefit to thinking about conflict as a negotiation.
At my previous job, we used to track these types of conflictual issues very carefully. Then, at the end of the year, we would go back through all the conflicts to examine what caused them. About 90% of the time, it was related to communication. Something was communicated poorly, misunderstood, or not communicated at all.
Maybe someone didn’t find out about a change in policy until it was already happening. Maybe a promotion didn’t sit well because the reasoning behind it wasn’t properly communicated. Whatever the case, it almost always came down to a lack of clarity about goals, processes, roles, or something else.
And when communication fails, tension builds.
Monitoring The Buildup
Your ability to solve a conflict (or really prevent one) is directly related to your ability to notice the buildup. Everyone can be a leader in this situation.
The leader is the one who recognizes the buildup and takes charge of the situation.
You have the ability to show leadership by bringing the parties together and saying, “Here are the commonalities. We’re not that far apart. How can we create a viable solution for everyone?”
That means you have to be on top of what’s going on. Monitor that building tension and find the right time to defuse it. This is everyday leadership.
I had to do just that a couple weeks ago.
Tension was rising because someone on our team was making a point repeatedly, but they didn’t feel like anyone was listening.
It was uncomfortable for everyone in the room. But if you can recognize the buildup, you can let it “ride” for a while.
I could have cut it off right as it started, but it was better to go through that uncomfortable meeting. I knew that both parties were focused on having the best outcome. We gave the constructive conflict some runway.
It’s important to provide room for some conflict to develop. I know that sounds backwards, but there’s value in a conflict between two people who genuinely want the best outcome. We ended up with a better outcome because of the process.
Allowing For Constructive Conflict
Think back to any argument you’ve had that ended in some sort of agreement. In the beginning, both parties work from different angles. There was tension, maybe even anger. That’s conflict.
An element of tension and conflict is always necessary if your standards are high. It enables all of us to think in a deep manner to resolve priorities and issues. Both sides have to air their positions on the issue. Hard questions are asked. Issues are worked through. The conflict leads to a much better solution.
You can’t go around walking on eggshells at work. A company can’t operate in passive-aggressive environment that’s full of simmering tensions. At some point, issues need to be addressed so that the team can resolve them.
Enabling conflict is healthy for teams, as long as everyone is focused on the end objective and not personal gain. If the conflict is happening because of ego or pride, then the conflict isn’t constructive. If the conflict is no longer healthy, and boils over, you need to put an end to it.
And as a leader in the office, it’s your job to recognize building conflict and tension—and make a decision when you recognize it’s no longer constructive. Learn to see that buildup happening, and work to head it off before it becomes something really explosive that brings down your team.
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