Being able to snuff out the lit fuse of a workplace conflict before it becomes an explosive situation is a true test of leadership.
Every workplace has its share of conflict. In any setting where people are engaged, committed and passionate about what they do, disagreements are inevitable. It means people care enough to disagree strongly. Change also brings conflict. Therefore, it's fair to say that the best organizations aren't those without conflict, but those that know how to deal with conflict in a healthy, constructive way. This is where effective leadership comes in.
A good leader should be able to recognize and understand when two colleagues are able to work toward resolution on their own and when a conflict requires intervention. Any clash that disrupts office harmony or poses a threat to other employees must be immediately managed. If a conflict is occurring frequently or appears to be escalating, intervention is absolutely necessary.
Waiting for such a problem to blow over is not part of the profile of a great leader. By avoiding or refusing to address conflict it will likely grow into resentment. By sweeping it under the rug, you are risking lost productivity, repressed creativity and creating impediments to cooperation and collaboration. Perhaps most detrimental, however, is the chance that good talent will choose to walk away from your organization in favour of a healthier, calmer and safer work environment.
Because conflict is a normal part of any workplace, the challenge lies in how to effectively deal with it.
Here are some tips for handling conflicts in a proactive and productive manner:
Seek out areas of potential conflict. This is not to say go looking for trouble, but spend time identifying and understanding where tensions might flair up so that you might be able to intervene quickly or prevent conflict from arising.
Open up communication with employees. Interestingly, 90 per cent of conflicts at work do not come from something that was said, but something that was not said. Don't assume that their silence means satisfaction. Instead, give your people an outlet to speak their mind early and often so that potential conflict can be nipped in the bud.
Figure out what is at stake. It may not appear to be a major issue to you, but it certainly is to them - and if the issue is important enough to create conflict, it is important enough to step in and resolve. Acknowledging their frustration and fears is a step toward finding a solution.
Intimidation is not the answer. Thinking that you can stamp out conflict with yelling and loud fist thumping will get you nowhere. It might silence a room temporarily, but without addressing the real problem, the conflict that still exists will continue to fester until it resurfaces.
Keep your personal attitude out of it. Avoid bringing your own preconceived notions, attitudes and personality conflicts into the situation, especially if dealing with a problematic employee. Just because they occasionally rub you the wrong way doesn't mean they don't have a legitimate problem that needs your mediation. Focus instead on identifying and resolving the issue. However, if due diligence shows that the individual is indeed the problem, focus on dealing with them at that point.
Meet privately with the parties involved. Create a safe refuge where both parties can express their viewpoint calmly and factually. No drama or emotional outbursts allowed. After each have an opportunity to speak, facilitate the discussion and objectively help pinpoint the root of the problem.
Act decisively, not hastily. Once you have had time to gather and evaluate the information and talked to everyone involved, make a decision and act upon it. Taking too long or leaving things in limbo can damage your credibility, while acting too quickly and erroneously can cause further alienation.
View conflict as opportunity. Every good leader should see the upside to conflict, because behind every disagreement is a potential for growth and development. A chance to hash things out can stimulate innovative ideas and ultimately, strengthen your team.
Of course, despite your best efforts, there is still no absolute guarantee that you will be able to resolve the conflict. You might need to consider bringing in outside mediation or reassigning one individual elsewhere in the organization in order to restore the peace.
Even if you are unable to find a workable resolution, you should be able to say that you've explored all avenues to address the issue positively and constructively. That is the role of a good leader.
-- With reporting by Barbara Chabai
Colleen Coates, CHRP, CCP, is a practice leader with People First HR Services Ltd. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.