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How To Effectively Manage Conflict At Work

This article was based on episode 166 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Get the full episode guide when you become a member at themodernmanager.com/join. Purchase any full episode guide at themodernmanager.com/shop.

Conflict is going to happen in the workplace. It’s inevitable. As the manager, you play a critical role in determining how the conflict plays out. Teams that engage in healthy, productive conflict become better, smarter, and closer. However, teams that engage in unhealthy, unproductive conflict slow down their work and worsen their relationships. To know if you’re steering your team down the right conflict path, here are five key ingredients to setting up your team to handle conflict well, and how to create Team Ground Rules for dealing with conflict when it arises.

THE CONTENT AND PROCESS OF A CONFLICT MATTER

Productive vs Unproductive Conflict

Conflict is productive when it enriches the conversation, solutions, or experience. Productive conflict makes the work better. It often occurs when different perspectives are shared and opposing ideas need to be grappled with.

Unproductive conflict tends to delay or side-track the work. The focus may be on the people rather than the work itself which further deteriorates relationships.

Healthy vs Unhealthy Conflict

Regardless of the content, how the conflict is addressed has a significant impact on the experience of the conflict. A healthy approach to conflict is one that is straightforward and grounded in respect.

An unhealthy approach to conflict takes a variety of forms including ignoring the conflict, subverting the conflict process, or approaching the conflict with ill will.

FIVE KEY INGREDIENTS FOR TEAMS TO DEAL WITH CONFLICT EFFECTIVELY

Trust Each Other

Trust is a key ingredient in any team, but it’s especially important when it comes to dealing with conflict. When a team doesn’t trust each other, all too often the real issue is their lack of respect or belief in each other. When this happens, it becomes difficult to listen to each other or embrace differences of opinion. Teams that lack trust often spend a lot of time looking over each other’s shoulder, which slows down productivity and hampers spirits. Similarly, when employees feel like they will be judged or blamed for sharing their perspective, people tend to hold back in order to avoid the discomfort and disrespect that might come from speaking up.

While developing trust and psychological safety takes time, it starts by appreciating when a different perspective is shared and respecting that people experience situations differently.

Focus On The Important Things

It’s important to make sure your team spends time wisely on the right things. If team members focus on problems that can’t be solved and criticize each others’ small errors, the important work isn’t getting done. This both wastes time and energy.

Team members can learn to accommodate or avoid certain issues, rather than engaging, wasting time, and dampening the energy of the group. To help distinguish between important topics and less important ones, you can ask the group how the outcome of the conversation will impact the overall outcome you’re working towards.

Enter From A Place Of Curiosity

When engaging in a productive, healthy dialogue, it’s important not to go in trying to win the argument. When we start with a closed mindset and advocate hard for our position, we shut down the process before it’s even started.

Instead, start by trying to understand the other’s perspective or situation. Encourage each person involved to enter dialogues from a place of curiosity. Encourage everyone involved to prioritize understanding over advocacy, especially in the early phase.

Lower The Emotional Bar

Conflict can bring up a lot of emotion. The problem with getting heated is that it increases the intensity of the conflict and lowers our ability to listen to each other. We can get so caught up in our own thoughts that there’s no room to consider anyone else’s. Emotions are also tricky because they often spark emotional reactions in return. When one person gets emotional, we may have several unhelpful reactions such as getting defensive, silencing ourselves so as not to upset the other person further, or subconsciously matching their emotional intensity and bringing the conflict to a boil.

If you notice yourself or another person becoming emotional, call a time-out. Taking a break and giving everyone some space to calm down and collect their thoughts will allow people to return to the conversation with a clearer head. One method I use to lower the emotional bar when I’m getting upset is to consider a new interpretation. Ask yourself: “What other way could I interpret their behavior/perspective?” or “What is causing me to react so strongly?”

Set Up Ground Rules And Use Them

Dealing with conflict is messy enough without the added complexity of unclear expectations. WIthout shared agreement on how to approach conflict, team members are left to their individual styles which may not serve the collective best.

To establish conflict ground rules, ask your team to identify what an ideal conflict experience looks like. Brainstorm different ideas for how they see healthy, productive conflict playing out. What processes are most appropriate for raising an issue or addressing one once it’s been identified? Then translate these into norms or ground rules that can guide the team going forward.

After you’ve agreed on the ground rules, it’s important to implement them. That means you may need to develop psychological safety first or improve communication skills. Invest in developing these preconditions and when conflicts arise, turn to the ground rules for support.

When your team understands the elements of healthy/unhealthy and productive/unproductive conflict, they can stop themselves from getting distracted and notice if there’s a lack of respect in the conversation. Empower your team to know how to call out conflict that isn’t serving the team and get everyone back to the right headspace.

We need to normalize conflict and acquire the skills to manage it. Tension and disagreements are a part of team life. When teams prioritize productive conflict and deal with conflict in a healthy way, their teamwork becomes stronger, they produce better results, and everyone feels more engaged and valued.

Get the full episode guide when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at themodernmanager.com/join. Or, purchase an individual episode guide at themodernmanager.com/shop to help you implement the learnings and continue to enhance your rockstar manager skills.


This article was based on episode 166 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.


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