How Great Leaders Resolve Conflict

  • 6 mins read

One thing is certain: when people are put together in working groups, there will be conflict. As a leader, it’s not a question of if you will face employee conflict, it’s a matter of when. Conflict is a natural occurrence in human interaction that leaders should not only expect, but be prepared for.

As business strategist Glenn Llopis advises in the Forbes article, 4 Ways Leaders Effectively Manage Conflict, leaders who fail to address conflict within their staff experience varying levels of disruption, disunity, lowered morale and diminished productivity. Resolving conflict effectively and positively is one of the most misunderstood and often avoided aspects of leadership.

With a dual approach to conflict, where measures are taken to minimize conflict triggers and mitigate conflict once it becomes apparent, everyone benefits.

Preventing Causes of Conflict

The best way for leaders to maintain a unified environment is by understanding what conditions cause conflict and putting in place management practices that avoid those conditions.

Conflict can be briefly defined as opposition put into action. The most common way opposition surfaces is in written form. Email and memo wars are prevalent, where chains of conflict can take on a life of their own, dragging bystanders down with them.

Conflict also takes on a verbal form, where arguments not only disrupt the work of those arguing, but interfere with the work of everyone within earshot.

Lastly, and most harmful, are physical conflicts. Physical combatants require immediate action per law and your company disciplinary policies.

A major cause of conflict is competition. Many will agree that some level of competition is healthy, but when it interferes with the ability to complete assignments it becomes a breeding ground for conflict. Competing priorities and action plans are a prime example. Employees may be put in competition for budgets, time, people or potential rewards. Leaders who can level the priority and resource playing field demonstrate that people are the priority. When they accommodate the overall needs of the team as amiably as possible, they avoid unmerited competitions and the conflict that follows.

Another cause of employee conflict is poor communication. Conflict is sure to appear if people don’t feel informed, or they are not sure of what is expected of them. Speculation and rumors create uncertainty, which can trigger anxiety and elevate conflict. A culture of communication and transparency minimizes gaps in information. Make it your policy to keep people informed and involved in the activity of the organization. Being truthful, without holding back bad news, will earn you trust and greatly minimize conflict.

Unfair treatment and/or lack of equal opportunities are another cause for conflict between coworkers. When people believe that they’re left out, unappreciated or not important, it sets-up resentments, rivalries and conflict.  Leaders with awareness and engagement skills create a supportive, understanding and inclusive work environment with equal treatment and consideration that prevents the kind of insecurities that can breed conflict.

The Proper Conflict Resolution Approach

When working with opposing points of view there are a number of potential outcomes, but only one is beneficial for all:

  1. If you concede to one party, the imbalance will make short life of any peace you establish. This kind of peace is likely in appearance only.
  2. If you avoid the issues at hand and mandate a resolution, everyone loses. The result may be a conflict worse than the original, and your efforts will fare worse than doing nothing.
  3. If you require the parties compete for a win, this also establishes a worse scenario in the long run. The conflict is only inflamed.
  4. If you have the parties compromise, which is a partial concession, the peace may last a while, but compromises are soon resented. The conflict typically ends up where it started, this time with an additional issue.
  5. The most effective approach is to collaborate and come to a resolution where both sides achieve a sense of win. If both sides can agree to make similar adjustments or concessions, they will have a sense of cooperation and success. The solution is found in the middle ground, where both sides come toward it and meet there.

As a leader, your role is to facilitate a civil collaboration and resolve the conflict with the most agreeable solution. This is a significant skill that many leaders haven’t developed. The power of conflict resolution is not to decree a fix, but to guide both parties to devise a solution they can live with. Llopis suggests the leader be proactive and intentional. These approaches establish you as a trusted coach, mediator and advocate for each side.

An Effective Conflict Resolution Process

As a facilitator in employee conflict resolution, it’s the leader’s job to guide the process by using effective steps that people will understand and follow:

  1. Resolving conflict is a private matter between the opposing employees and their leader. It is a personal encounter conducted by the leader, with the goal of helping each person take away value and agreement.
  2. The leader affirms the values and principles everyone in the organization is to strive for, which includes teamwork, cooperation and fairness.
  3. A mediation process is used to hear out each side, value their perspectives and help each party understand the viewpoint of the other.
  4. The leader guides each participant to offer viable solutions. The suggestions are reviewed, modified and discussed until an agreement can be reached. This is generally not as difficult as it may appear. Solutions are often simple, but people in conflict often don’t see them without help.
  5. The parties are led into an implementation and follow-up process where progress can be monitored and reviewed. This is a critical time for strong support from the leader.

Leaders who have developed softer skills will have the most success in conflict resolution. Your empathy, authenticity and active listening are critical in developing trust in you, and the process. A qualified executive coach can be a great resource to help you hone these skills and apply them in the conflict resolution process.

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