While we may wish for our organizations to run in perfect harmony, the truth is that a diversity of voices will inevitably give rise to conflict. And that’s not always a bad thing—in fact, conflict management isn’t simply about nipping disagreements in the bud. It’s about minimizing the negative impact of conflict (lower employee engagement and morale, decreased productivity) while drawing out the positive aspects (generating new ideas, creative problem-solving, opportunities for growth).
There are a number of models that attempt to define different conflict management styles. But most researchers agree there isn’t one best route to managing conflict. Instead, there are basic skills that a leader must have if he or she plans on effectively mediating a disagreement between staff or organizations, including a tolerance for ambiguity, the ability to stay calm in heated moments, deep listening skills, and a knack for gaining the respect and trust of others.
Here are four things a leader must do in order to effectively manage conflict in the workplace:
Listen to all points of view. Hearing every side of the disagreement is key, not only for gathering information to help contextualize the conflict, but to make sure everyone feels that their voice is being heard. Employees who feel as if their complaints were taken seriously and examined thoroughly are more likely to report being satisfied with the way a conflict was handled, even if they didn’t get the specific resolution they wanted.
Check previously held assumptions. If two staff members present a conflict and you, as a mediator, have an immediate urge to side with one of them, that’s a clue for you to check in with the underlying biases or assumptions that are driving your reaction. How are previous experiences with each staff member affecting your perspective on the current situation? How is this problem different from similar conflicts you’ve seen resolved in the past? Do you fully understand the cultural differences that might be driving the conflict?
Highlight commonalities. Rather than focusing on what’s driving the disagreement, see if you can start with where the two parties agree. If Beth’s task-oriented nature is making Jim—who wants to gather all the data before making a decision—go crazy, emphasize that Beth and Jim share a common goal. They both want to complete the project well and on deadline. Reinforcing this commonality can help set the groundwork for cooperation, rather than conflict, as Beth and Jim look for a way to best work together.
Try to create a win-win situation. This certainly isn’t always possible, but especially in cases of conflicts that arise from differences in working style (such as between Beth and Jim), finding a compromise that offers both parties a sense of satisfaction can help create an environment where conflicts are less likely to arise in the future. Meeting on mutual ground, asking each party to state what specifically they need to feel the issue is settled, and having both sides engage in conversation with one another can help set the tone where compromise is most likely.
Finally, it’s important to remember not to despair when conflict arises. Workplace disputes are not necessarily a sign of a systemic problem. In fact, a workplace that highlights a diversity of different perspectives, creates an environment where employees feel comfortable speaking their minds, and juggles multiple demands is exactly the type of place where conflict inevitably arises—and these are all qualities of thriving organizations. Viewing conflict as an opportunity for growth, rather than a problem, is the first step in managing a successful workplace.