We’d all like to imagine ourselves above the fights and tantrums of elementary and middle school. However, when conflict creeps up in the workplace, you might be transported back to the blacktop during recess, fighting over who’s turn is next.
When things get heated in the workplace, it’s up to the leaders to step in and help the team take action. As conflict crops up, here’s what you need to consider, from mediating to resolution.
Is this argument constructive?
For the conflict-averse, even a small disagreement might feel like a big conflict. But, the reality is, disagreements are bound to crop up, especially when you’re working with a small, impassioned team. Don’t forget that disagreements and strong opinions over work issues demonstrate that your team is engaged and invested.
The key is figuring out when disagreement becomes an unhealthy conflict. Here’s how you might be able to differentiate:
- It’s not solved by “agreeing to disagree.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as both parties telling each other they see it differently, then walking away. If all parties can do so without hard feelings, this doesn’t need to escalate into a conflict.
- It starts to get emotional. When disagreement started to get heated, things can get emotional. If anger, feel, or sadness starts to crop up, this disagreement has become a conflict.
Disagreements and discussions can be constructive, even cathartic. Oftentimes, they’ll require no referee. As a leader on your team, just keep an eye out to see if you’ll need to intervene.
Mediate first, be the boss second
Stepping in as the “boss” to resolve conflict might work in the short term, but can have long-term ramifications for your team. When you come in and tell your team what to do, they might listen, but they’re less likely to follow through on your advice. It’s the old “teach a man to fish” adage–if you work on mediating, you’ll show your team how they can resolve conflict on their own in the future.
You’ll only want to take out the boss hat in a few scenarios; If the conflict escalates quickly and threatens to endanger anyone, or if all other avenues have been exhausted, then you’ll want to consider stepping out as the mediator, and in as boss.
Divide and conquer understand
When you mediate a conflict between teammates, you should serve as a neutral third party, listening to both sides fully without judgment. You try to understand the conflict, and then work through a resolution altogether.
To successfully mediate, separate the conflicting groups, and meet with them each separately first, before bringing them back together. Studies show meeting separately can help the mediator understand the conflict better, and can put everyone at ease.
Remind everyone involved that the one-on-ones meetings aren’t there to create a resolution, or to lay blame on either party. Rather, they’re meant to serve as a tool to understand the initial conflict and nothing else. This can especially be helpful when conflict is among a group, not just two people–it gives everyone a chance to really speak up. Instead of choosing sides, stress to everyone involved that this is about “seeing all sides.”
Meeting separately at first to mediate can help deescalate the conflict and associated emotions. Once everyone’s talked it out and felt that they’ve been heard, they’ll be more relaxed and receptive when brought together again.
Regroup and resolution
Once you have an idea of how both parties feel, it’s time to bring everyone back together to hopefully reach a resolution. Even just talking the conflict out with a neutral third-party can provide enough catharsis for some parties to move on. By the time you all reconvene, there may no longer be a problem to solve.
However, that’s not always the case. Once you get together, you should ask your team to write down what steps they could take to resolve the conflict. Have everyone write down possible solutions, making it clear that one or both parties may have to compromise in the end.
A solution might not be perfect for everyone, but it should be something they can agree on as a team. When you reach that moment, be sure to acknowledge everyone who might be compromising with this solution, as well as those who actively worked towards reaching a resolution. Sometimes, a compromise doesn’t feel nearly as good as getting exactly what you want–that’s why it’s doubly important to celebrate a solution, making everyone feel a little better.
Conflict in the workplace might not always be comfortable but is unavoidable. Like running away from something scary in a bad dream, the more you try to run from it, the faster it’ll catch up with you. Tackling the problem head-on with patience and a good ear can help build your team for the better.