Managing Conflict Part 1 – If I have to stop this office…
Some days being a manager feels a lot like taking a car full of kids on a long trip. Between team members bickering, colleagues trying to eat your snacks, clients complaining about the route you chose, and management whining “are we there yet?”, someone is always unhappy about something. But before you stand up and shout “if I have to stop this office…” take a minute to read this recipe for defusing conflict within your team. Tomorrow I’ll cover conflict with people outside your team.
Catch it Early – Whether it’s a rolled eye in a meeting or a snide email, the seeds of conflict are generally visible long before the combatants take up arms. Ignoring the early signs of a feud won’t make it more fun to defuse later. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict started small too.
Get the Whole Story – If your chief objective for the day is to look like an idiot, feel free to get all wound up when Suzie tells you that Jane stole her idea. No matter how convincing Suzie’s story is, you’d better interview some eyewitnesses and ask The Accused for her version before you march her off to solitary.
Focus on the Facts – When you are gathering the facts about a conflict between your team members, put on your detective hat and focus on getting a complete picture of the issue with an objective eye. Hear out the individuals (talk to them separately) and let them vent if they need to, but don’t get caught up in the emotional aspects of the argument. Remember that your end goal is to resolve the issue rather than escalating it, and you can only do that effectively if you can see the facts clearly. Focus on the “what” not the “who”
Assess the Impact – Once you have the facts in place, decide whether you need to intervene or let the participants work it out for themselves. Open warfare is bad for team morale, and it’s definitely your job to mediate issues that impact productivity or performance. However if this is purely an interpersonal issue, you may just need to reiterate to both parties that while they don’t have to be friends, they do have to be professionals and leave it at that.
Get Together – When you have all the facts on the table and are ready to take action, gather around the campfire (or the conference table if you don’t have a campfire handy). It’s easy to get wound up and badmouth someone who isn’t right in front of you, but often just the act of talking face to face will reduce the tension and bring about a compromise. It may sound cheesy, but it’s important to highlight how much you value both of the people involved. Someone will probably have to admit they were wrong for this to get settled, and that can be tough on the ego. Your job is to keep the focus on what’s good for the team, and hopefully build consensus about the right path to take to resolve the issue.
Keep your Eye on the Prize – Whenever you make a change, whether it’s to resolve a conflict or achieve some other goal, it should be in alignment with the vision of the team and the organization. If Mike wants to launch a project that’s in conflict with Steve’s goals, your ultimate benchmark for creating a compromise has to lie with the larger goals of the team. Maybe Mike has uncovered how to build a better mousetrap, in which case Steve’s cat recruitment project is no longer the best use of his time.
Monitor the Situation – Once everyone has shaken hands and made up, you are not off the hook. You need to be sure that your team members are doing more than talking the talk. Keep an eye on things over the next few months and check in periodically to make sure you haven’t driven the issue underground to grow in hiding.
The Last Resort – While you may have dreamed of leaving your brother on the side of the road somewhere, that wasn’t ever a realistic option. As a manager you do have the choice (although it is a drastic solution) of removing the source of the conflict by terminating one or both employees.
Conflict is an inevitable part of management. While it’s healthy to see team members engage in active debate, your job is to make sure that activity doesn’t cross the boundary into bitter conflict. In the next post we’ll dive into the challenging topic of calming irate customers. In the meantime leave a comment and tell me what you think about handling conflict on your team!
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