How to lead conflict in the workplace before it spreads

Unresolved conflict on your team is contagious. 

It spreads like weeds in your garden, the flu in a second-grade classroom, or a zombie apocalypse. 

As a leader, you don’t have the option of ignoring conflict. It leads to people calling out unexpectedly to avoid the tension in the office, people quitting, projects missing due dates, and missed opportunities for your team to thrive.

Patrick Lencioni’s book The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team teaches us that conflict is a healthy part of a team reaching its potential. Your goal as a leader is to teach your team how to have a healthy relationship with conflict. When you bring groups of people to the table together, it is natural that there will be disagreements about priorities or the best way to solve a problem.

Learning to manage conflict effectively is challenging because to do it effectively, YOU have to be willing to get vulnerable as a leader. This means we go against our natural instincts to fight back.

As a person, it’s natural that when someone hurts us, we want to retaliate and hurt them back. But it doesn’t stop there because we need people to know that we are right to do what we do. So we start rallying the troops and finding people who would take our side. Meanwhile, the person you have a conflict with is doing the exact same thing on the other side of the fence.

So now, instead of being a team, you have two opposing tribes committed to an internal corporate slugfest. Many of you likely have this exact situation playing out in your organization, at some level, right now. 

Sometimes the conflict is loud, with people bursting into your office to complain. Other times it is passive, with people talking shit about each other in their cliques and then staying quiet when “The Others” join their conversation. 

So what do you do when this happens to your team?

(Side note: if you are finding this helpful, you’ll love my complete conflict resolution guide.)

Before you get started cleaning up this mess, be sure you are extremely aware of your emotions going into each conversation. You will react differently when you are stressed or frustrated. Take time to focus on your breathing, meditate, go on a walk, or whatever will help you be composed and remain in the moment for this conversation.

Your first step is to meet with those involved in the conflict, as a group or individually, depending on the severity of the conflict. Be sure you are clear about why you are meeting and that it’s impossible for the team to reach their goals with individuals who are unable to work together effectively.

In this conversation, it is critical that you don’t take sides. Be aware of your tone, word choice, and body language. Subtle gestures like nodding your head while someone is talking can be interpreted as taking their side in the argument.

Your job in this conversation is to listen deeply to what is being said and look for common ground between the conflicted parties. Assume the best intentions in these conversations. At the end of the day, people want to show up, do well, be appreciated, and be treated fairly, 

Pro Tip: In my experience, most conflict is caused by a misunderstanding. By taking time to clarify missteps in communication, you can end a lot of conflicts before it starts. 

Your role in the conversation will be to act as a mediator, facilitating a balanced dialogue where each person has a fair opportunity to speak and be heard without interruptions. It is important to allow for questions and clarifications between speakers before moving on to the next person. After everyone has expressed their views, it’s crucial to find areas of agreement and work collaboratively toward identifying solutions to the key issues. It’s essential to have a clear understanding of the agreed-upon solutions to ensure follow-up and effective resolution of the conflict.

  • Encourage group members to verbalize the ways finding solutions benefit them
  • Help your employees understand the long-term benefits of finding solutions together and highlight the risks of not finding solutions
  • While talking to each party, be intentional about recognizing the strengths they bring to the team

A few additional notes:

  • Don’t wait to address conflict. Things won’t get better without your involvement.
  • Create space to listen with empathy and compassion before moving into resolution mode.
  • After talking through the conflict, challenge the conflicted parties to come up with a solution moving forward
  • When they make commitments, it is your responsibility as a leader to ensure they understand following through on the plan is an expectation and not an option

There will be times when company policies and values are broken, and you will need to include HR for assistance in holding people accountable for their actions. It’s up to you as a leader to decide what is tolerated in your organization. A lack of accountability will crush your culture.  And then…

Okay. I’m feeling pretty good about this 800-word breakdown. This won’t solve everything, but it will solve A LOT.
Be sure to pick up my Conflict Resolution guide to learn more, and don’t be afraid to reach out if you have questions. I’ll always help how I can. 

Jacob Espinoza is a leadership coach in Salem, Oregon. For more information visit JacobEspinoza.com.

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