Managing Conflicts through Tough Conversations

When conflict is ignored—especially at the top—the result will be an enterprise that competes more passionately with itself than with its competitors.”— Howard M. Guttman, When Goliaths Clash

If you lead a team, you may have noticed that managing interpersonal conflicts, especially among your team members, can feel like you’re putting out fires more often than you get work done. The leaders I coach tell me that at least 20 percent of their time is consumed by taking care of conflict.

We also know from experience that productivity decreases further when coworkers ruminate over arguments and disagreements.

Modern work culture values democratic processes and individual freedom. Some people encourage debate, which can be healthy because it can serve as a springboard for new ideas and honor other people’s perspectives.

I believe that conflict should be neither suppressed nor ignored within an organization. When it goes unresolved, there’s nowhere for that energy to go. It simply gets pushed down or aside, causing tension and stress for everyone involved. Employees become resentful.  Of course, eliminating conflict is not the answer either. The best solution lies in how we choose to handle our differences, and as a leader, your actions strongly influence the culture as others take their conflict resolution cues from you.

The Leadership Edge

There is a strong link between the ability to resolve conflict and one’s perceived effectiveness as a leader. According to research from the Management Development Institute of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, effective leaders resolve conflicts by employing four key behaviors:

  1. Gaining perspective
  2. Creating solutions
  3. Expressing emotions
  4. Reaching out

Those who succeed are deemed more suitable for promotion. The problem is that most people are trained in the competencies required for their careers and industries. They aren’t necessarily astute negotiators of people’s emotions and relationships. They allow their own biases and emotions mediate, which is unproductive at best. If an employee doesn’t feel welcome, safe or respected at work, what reason do they have to be loyal?

That may explain the recent upsurge in demand for coaching services. The higher a person’s stress levels, the more they need help in managing their emotions and relationships. Conflict is often the catalyst.

Managed well, conflict can stimulate creativity, motivate people to stretch themselves, encourage peer-to-peer learning and help teams’ move beyond the status quo. Engaging in healthy conflict resolution can encourage empathy among coworkers, build trust between management and their team and will make every member of the organization feel valued.

Your task, as a leader, is to conduct tough conversations that help mediate workplace conflicts without wasting time. Conflict isn’t something to take lightly. Those tough conversations are hard to have – and are worth having – but not worth risking poor outcomes. Handling a situation badly can be much worse than not handling it at all. That’s why I recommend partnering with an experienced coach, who can teach you how to navigate conflict with the best possible outcomes for the company and everyone involved.

I’m curious…what have you learned from some of your most challenging conversations and how do those lessons inform the way you lead today? Drop me a quick note here.