Think of the classic family road trip.
Parents drive and navigate (with maps if you’re old enough to remember pre-GPS travel). The kids play in the back seat. Soon, the long hours and close space create the perfect storm. Commotion erupts in the back. One parent tries to be diplomatic hearing out both sides of “who started it” in the backseat. The other one just yells "THAT’S ENOUGH." Next comes the tears and threats to "turn this car around."
Even if you never took a family road trip I’m sure you can relate to the way conflict starts and the ways conflict resolution can go seriously wrong.
Conflicts happen everywhere.
Even in the workplace. No workplace is perfect, because none of us are perfect. We should expect conflicts to happen. This doesn’t indicate a failure on our part. However, how we handle disagreements in the workplace will show how good of a manager we are.
So how do we avoid being a manager like the second parent who yells and lets their emotions get the better of them?
Follow these 5 steps to effectively resolve conflicts:
1. Get to the root-what’s really going on?
Any gardener will tell you that if you want to get rid of weeds you can’t just yank out the stem, it will grow back. You need to make sure you’re getting to the very core of the issue. When it comes to conflicts, a lot of the time it’s not what we think it is!
Get stories from both sides involved. Get as many details as possible. Ask specific questions. Be thorough and try to make an accurate timeline of not only the conflict, but the lead-up Make sure you are aware of any history of previous disagreements or incidents that may have led to this moment. After you collect all this information you can make a better judgement call on how you can fix the current situation and prevent similar situations in the future. Document this process so if anything goes wrong you can see step-by-step everything you did.
2. Offer immediate solutions.
You can’t solve everything on the spot, but you can start that process to fixing a problem right away. Don’t let things build up! An unattended conflict will rarely just work itself out. So make sure even if you don’t have the time personally to see to the issue you have systems in place that can directly address any problem. The faster you start working on solving a problem the less time there is for hurt feelings and egos to get in the way. When we let things go unsolved, the problem only gets worse.
3. Find a comfortable “neutral” space.
Some places have “hometown advantages,” like your personal office or a conference room with high-visibility. In fact, when we use these spaces an employee might feel singled out like a kid called to the principal’s office. This can make someone defensive because they feel judged as the entire office sees them enter the space. Set-up a place that makes each person feels supported and comfortable.
This could be a public space like a coffee shop or somewhere in the office that’s less formal and intimidating, like a common space or courtyard. When you set up these meetings, be clear. Don’t let the person’s imagination run wild so they come in anxious. Tell them what you need to talk to them about and set clear intentions and goals. You can even have things on hand like pen and paper or other tools for expression so they feel as though they can communicate their feelings beyond traditional verbal communication.
4. Offer anonymity.
Sometimes people aren’t comfortable with a face-to-face discussion. This shouldn’t deter them from reaching out when they have an issue. Offer ways for employees to seek resolution that allows them some space (physical or otherwise). This could be an anonymous comment box or secure shared document that allows employees to submit concerns without having to attach their name to it. Make sure your employees know that they have other options of coming forward it they aren’t comfortable talking to you directly. This could be an HR department or even just a peer-elected individual who serves as the representative between the team and management. Not only will this help keep communication clear it will give employees a chance to feel like they have representation in management and are more empowered to speak-up on concerns they have.
5. Have frequent check-ins without pressure or consequence.
People won’t come forward with problems if they feel like they could get in trouble. Also, if you’re not asking, they might think you’re not listening. Make sure you are open and available to your team. You should participate in frequent evaluations and check-ins that encourage employees to share not only their concerns, but also their ideas. Remember you’re all a team so everyone should feel they have equal say and responsibility in creating a positive work environment.
The bottom line
Few things breed toxicity in the workplace like interpersonal conflict between employees or between staff and management. And a toxic environment is about the biggest productivity killer out there. Not to mention it's an incredibly effective way to drive your best employees right out the door.
Don't let conflict fester. And don't pretend it doesn't exist. If you do, best case, you'll kill productivity and drive away your best employees. Worst case, you'll expose the company to possible legal action by employees who felt harassed in the workplace.
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