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How to Deal with Conflict at Work as a Manager

How to Deal with Conflict at Work as a Manager

When we talk about fostering a diverse workplace, that means recognizing and celebrating all kinds of diversity: of backgrounds, of experiences, of ideas. A diverse team should include racial and gender diversity, of course, but welcoming diversity means also creating a positive workplace for team members who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, have different levels of education, have lived in different countries, speak different languages, and have different political views.

All of those differences, when thoughtfully considered and managed, can lead to teams that perform better, have more creative ideas, and learn with and from each other.

But those differences, if not so thoughtfully managed, can lead to conflict, whether seemingly innocuous (like teasing or passive-aggressive comments) or quite serious (like harassment or discriminatory behavior).

As a manager, conflict on your team might look like:

  • Team members having a hard time working together because they have different views about the upcoming election
  • Employees from different generations struggling to communicate
  • A new hire facing retaliation by a peer for identifying toxic team behaviors
  • Or any number of other issues

If you're looking for how to resolve conflict at work as a manager, you'll want to focus on these three things:

  1. Actively creating an environment where your employees feel listened to, understood, and respected
  2. Identifying what is a difference of opinion and what is unacceptable work behavior and who should solve a given conflict
  3. Understanding a process for how to mediate conflict at work in coordination with the impacted parties

This guide will walk through each of the above, enabling you to deal with conflict at work as a manager.

Conflict resolution starts with creating an open-minded environment

As a manager, the way you approach conflict will become the way your team approaches conflict. Is it something that you understand to be normal and welcome? Or something you shy away from and pretend doesn't exist?

Here are some managerial decisions that can help encourage an open-minded environment:

  • Holding group meetings. Make sure that you bring your team together on a regular basis and encourage honesty in these meetings. Consider asking regular poll questions, like what's been going well each week and what's been going poorly, to facilitate sharing.
  • Having an open-door policy. Encourage your employees to bring problems your way by yes, literally having an open door, but also sharing "office hours" on your public calendar so your team knows there is dedicated time they can reach out without bothering you. (That's especially important for all-remote teams.)
  • Holding regular 1:1s. There will be things your employees don't feel comfortable sharing in a group setting and won't be proactive enough to bring to you on their own, so setting aside 10 minutes in your regular 1:1 meetings with employees to ask them about any issues is a good idea.
  • Investing in training. To give your team the vocabulary needed to better understand and engage in some forms of workplace conflict, consider investing in anti-bias, anti-racism, and conflict resolution training for all employees, not just managers.
  • Coming up with rules of engagement for your team. Your company probably has formal policies for communication and conflict resolution, but it's unlikely that your team feels very much ownership of them. Encourage them to take an active role in the kind of environment they'd like to work in by setting aside a team meeting to focus on coming up with principles of how they'd like to be with each other, like "We will seek to understand before we seek to be understood" or "We will discuss political topics, but will not accept viewpoints that call into question anyone's humanity."

You want your employees to be able to show up as their full selves at work and be celebrated for it. That means creating space for employees to learn about their differences and explore them without judgment or hostility, which isn't something that happens automatically. But by investing in the ideas above, you can create a true sense of inclusion where everyone feels comfortable sharing their perspective and working to understand the perspectives of others.

Difference of opinion or unacceptable work behavior? Conflict identification and categorization

It may sound counterintuitive, but some conflict at work is good. For instance, two employees disagreeing about the direction for a new marketing campaign and working through their different points of view might end up creating a much stronger campaign in the end.

And some conflict at work is neutral. For instance, a few teammates having an open-minded discussion about the latest news on Trump's tax returns over lunch might not have any great consequences, positive or negative, on their work.

But if you're here, reading this article and wondering how to mediate conflict at work, you're probably thinking of bad conflict. Conflict that causes divisions in your team, destroys morale, and might have legal ramifications.

Not every disagreement is something you need to get involved in. In fact, you should set the expectation that your employees will solve low-level conflicts on their own; it helps hold them accountable and empowers them. But there are certain conflicts that you must be involved in.

There are three categories of conflict at work from a manager's point of view:

When a non-trivial issue crops up, ask yourself the following questions to determine whether you can work through it on your own or whether your first stop should be HR:

  • Does the issue fall into a protected category (via Title VII of the Civil Rights Act): race, color, national origin, gender, religion, or sexual harassment? (An example would be an employee saying something like, "I feel like [coworker's name] is making me look bad in front of clients because I am a woman.") If so, you'll need to engage your company's HR team to help resolve the conflict, since there are specific legal obligations for how companies need to investigate alleged discriminatory practices.
  • Is the issue retaliatory in nature? For example, is an employee concerned that their team lead is giving her worse assignments because she flagged that the team lead was engaging in problematic behavior previously? If so, this is another case for HR.
  • Does the issue involve aspects of your employee policies or handbook? For instance, is the problem about one employee repeatedly wearing clothes with political messaging on them to work despite that being against company policy? Again, you'll need to involve HR and make sure that you follow any company-wide disciplinary processes as you investigate.

If the conflict at hand doesn't have to do with a protected category, a retaliatory complaint, or a specific violation of company policy, you're probably in the clear to handle without HR intervention (but do go ahead and consult with them if you'd like).

Understanding the nature of the complaint will help you determine what the right conflict-resolution process to address it might be. Is it an issue around different communication styles? Is it stemming from a gossip problem? Are divergent cultural values at play?

Applying a conflict-resolution process

For a work conflict that can't be worked out by the involved parties themselves and doesn't need to go through a formal HR investigation, consider the following conflict resolution process when determining how to mediate conflict at work:

  1. Hear from both sides. Ideally, you can hear from both parties together, in the same room, to encourage each to be as honest as possible in conveying what's happening. You want to understand the facts of what's happened. Give each person a chance to speak. Ask them to use statements like "I feel" versus "You made me" to avoid defensiveness. Allow them to share their emotions, but make sure it doesn't veer into personal attacks.
  2. Have the involved employees define the real issue. Ask each employee to restate the other party's point of view. Have them summarize what's really causing the conflict by asking "what need of [the other person] is not being fulfilled?" For instance, if one team member is frustrated that their coworker took credit for a project they both worked on, perhaps the unfilled need is one of recognition and appreciation. Find areas of agreement by getting both parties to acknowledge the issue at hand and the needs unfulfilled.
  3. Explore solutions. Once you've defined the problem, ask each employee how they think they could resolve it. Encourage them to provide several alternatives and to open-mindedly explore each one. Try not to offer your own advice and instead encourage your employees to come up with their own solutions. Explore the merits of their ideas and come up with a solution that everyone involved can agree on. Make sure each party knows what they will have to change going forward.
  4. Agree on next steps. After your working group has decided on a solution, make sure to communicate the takeaways to the rest of the team, if appropriate. Agree to meet with the parties at hand in a few weeks to determine how the solution is working, and get in sync on what you'll do if it's not, including taking disciplinary action.
  5. Document. Write up a summary of the conflict, the cause, the proposed solution, and the go-forward plan. This will allow you to have a clear record of the issue if it does bloom into a bigger problem.

Conflict will always be a part of work

With a diverse group of people working together, you're bound to run into differences of opinion. That's especially true in a broader political environment that's as emotionally charged as ours is right now.

But as a manager, you have the ability to create a work environment that centers tolerance and encourages open-minded exploration of differences. Knowing when to allow employees to work things out themselves, when to get HR involved, and when (and how) to mediate a conflict on your own is a big part of that. The most important thing to keep in mind, though, is that conflict will happen, and only by exploring it can you grow from it.

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