Workplace conflict is impossible to avoid forever, even if you're a master escape artist or people-pleaser. Avoidance tactics are less effective the more you gain responsibility, making it wise to develop conflict management skills early in your career. Get comfortable with the reality that problem-solving is about finding a productive path forward, not fixing everything. As you move up the ranks, learn to confront workplace conflict and grow as a leader.
1. Let Go of Assumptions
Acknowledge your personal bias, whether you're directly involved in a workplace conflict or settling a dispute between employees. Misunderstandings grow when you make assumptions about the other person's beliefs or motivations. People who disagree often have similar goals, but different ideas about how to achieve them.
Avoid taking sides based on limited information. If an employee comes to you with a complaint, make it clear that you plan to look into the matter further. Being thorough helps to prevent a toxic culture where managers continually assign blame to the wrong parties.
2. Pick Your Battles
Good leaders don't waste time and energy dealing with minor squabbles. While you might think it's your job to be a peacemaker, butting in too often may prevent employees from working things out on their own. Decide if it's necessary or helpful to take action. Is the workplace conflict affecting your whole team? Did anyone involved come to you for guidance or a resolution?
Sometimes, the best choice is to step aside and let employees gain insight and mutual respect by working through their differences. Just make sure that when you back down from a workplace conflict, you're doing it for the right reasons.
3. Get the Facts
Dancing around a deep-seated workplace conflict only encourages it to grow. Instead of avoiding it, look for the earliest source of the problem. Ask questions to understand how the problem escalated. When possible, talk to employees who witnessed the conflict but weren't directly involved. An ongoing feud eventually causes trouble for everyone, so many workers are motivated to help resolve the issue.
By listening to others, you can identify patterns of behavior fueling a workplace conflict. Employees also see you as a fair and trustworthy leader when you give people equal opportunity to share their thoughts.
4. Use Neutral Language
Employees are reluctant to open up to leaders who are aggressive or accusatory. Use neutral questions and statements to get employees to reflect on their actions. Instead of saying, "I heard you bashing my leadership style," you can say, "I'm still growing as a leader and welcome feedback. What type of leadership is most beneficial to you?" Try to remove anger from the equation altogether, so you're less likely to feed the conflict cycle by being hostile or emotional.
5. Make a Decision
An unpopular decision is better than no decision, so don't hide from a workplace conflict once you're involved. Decide whether your role is to mediate or pass the final verdict. Consider which options are most beneficial and least problematic, and then explain why a particular course of action is better based on the facts available to you.
Conflict management is complex and full of gray areas. But if you make the effort to listen and thoroughly investigate workplace conflicts, you can build a reputation as an ethical boss.
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