By Judy Ringer
“How do you manage conflicts between employees? What should I do when coworkers can’t get along?”
In my 20 years of teaching and coaching, I find these among the questions managers struggle with most. Conflict among coworkers saps time and energy and limits creativity and team spirit, not to mention keeping the manager up nights, wondering what to do.
I see otherwise skilled and technically savvy managers at odds. “Should I intervene? Hold a joint meeting? Work individually? What do I say?”
Some intervene unskillfully and exacerbate the problem. Some avoid confronting he issue, and the environment suffers. Good people leave because of the stress. Jobs don’t get done effectively, because coworkers avoid each other. Relationships and output suffer. Sometimes entire organizations become polarized.
While the skills to calm these internal hot spots are not always intuitive or even apparent in many workplaces, they exist. We can learn, practice, and can become proficient at them.
5 Tips for Managing Conflict Between Co-Workers
1) First Manage You
Your attitude toward what’s happening makes all the difference. If you think it will go badly or well, you’re right. Reframe for yourself and your employees that this is an opportunity:
- For the relationship to change for the better.
- For the parties to learn valuable work and life skills.
- To see more positive aspects of each other.
Practice objectivity, non-judgment, and belief that the conflict is the way they will get to know each other better. Align with each and both.
2) Measure and Gain Commitment
Are they willing to change? Or do they prefer to cultivate their own story — that everything would be fine if only the other would change? Make sure you talk with each person about their willingness to engage in the process. Are they open to seeing their contribution to the conflict as it has emerged? Do they see the benefits of working through this? Let them see this as an investment and vote of confidence you are making in their future. And make sure they understand the consequences of not going forward.
3) Meet Individually First
Don’t get both people in the room at the beginning. Talk with each separately. Learn about the conflict from each point of view. Don’t try to fix anything here. Don’t give advice. Let each tell their story. Listen and acknowledge. Let them know you heard.
4) Build Skills
Skills such as managing emotions, listening as an ally, and advocating for yourself while being open to other views.
5) Bring the Parties Together.
Help each tell a new story about the other. Emphasize Contribution vs. Blame. Help them see the positive intentions of the other, even if the impact has not been positive. They are currently only seeing the problem parts of each other. Help them to look for areas of appreciation.
In today’s workplace where time is of the essence and none of us have enough of it, you may wonder why this “to-do” should rise to the top of the priority list, and when you will find the time. Ask yourself the following questions, and if you say yes to any of them, you may have your answers.
- Is conflict among coworkers sapping your time and energy?
- Do personality conflicts limit your ability to manage?
- Do you find yourself waking up nights wondering how to intervene the next time your employees squabble?
- Is the tension caused by the clash affecting others?
- Are others taking sides?
- Does the difficulty limit the team’s ability to accomplish goals
Think how much time you’re spending on the problem now. I’ve found it takes more time not to resolve conflict.
Learning to intervene and help resolve employee disagreements will save you and your work group time, aggravation, and money in the form of your increased ability to do what you and they have been hired to do.
When I’m invited into organizations to work with conflicting parties, it’s a privilege. I watch with awe as people, each of whom I find amazing in their own right, learn to (re)discover the amazing-ness of each other. As we engage in the process of raising awareness, building skills, and re-establishing relationship, I watch barriers come down, hard lines soften, and people change to become more of who they really are. Life changes for them as they see what’s possible. It becomes more effortless, more interesting and more fun. They become proselytes, preaching the possibilities of constructive conflict transformation. Where they began the process as skeptics, they are amazed at how practicing a few simple skills can change everything. How they have more power than they ever thought was possible. It’s a pretty cool vantage point. And it could be yours.
What practice will you choose?
You are practicing something now, albeit unconsciously. Do you avoid the conflict? Then you’re practicing that. Do you accommodate the conflict? Then you’re becoming competent at that. My point is: start practicing intentionally the skills, attitudes, and mechanics you want to improve in order to make this part of your job – and it is part of your job – easier and more satisfying. In the process, you will increase your own leadership presence, resilience, and ability to manage whatever comes your way.