4 Steps to Successful Conflict Management

Conflict management is one of any manager's most challenging functions. If teams are unable to resolve conflicts that arise during everyday work life, collaboration may be jeopardized. Strife can come from mundane things such as who gets the best work space or newest laptop, or from more important decisions like organizing and scheduling a major project. Managers need to collect opinions and feedback from their teams and then make the best decision for everyone. This means facilitating discussions and understanding that not everyone will be pleased. If you're a manager approaching any kind of decision, here are some steps to consider when dealing with conflict:

Be sure to keep a cool head when discussing conflict management.

  1. Keep teams as small as possible. Give members a chance to know each other, and have management get to know the team. Effective communication can be challenging in big groups because they're spread out. Additionally, members may have difficulty defining roles. Steve Jobs liked to say that teams should be able to share two pizzas for lunch, meaning no more than 8 to 10 members. This pizza rule is probably easier to follow among middle market companies than larger rivals.
  2. Know the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict. Before the team makes a decision, foster an open discussion. If your team immediately agrees on everything, you probably have a bad team. Disagreements over business issues are normal and healthy because they demonstrate opinions. Managers should set expectations, explain the criteria for each decision, catalyze open debate and then finalize the decision that all members can support. However, if disagreements continue into the execution phase, then conflict is getting unhealthy. This is absolutely the case if things turn personal and begin to affect work. Your team members don't need to be best friends or hang out socially, but they must have enough professionalism and maturity to work together. Reinforce expectations for all team members, especially around collaboration. Part of conflict management is knowing when to intervene: do so when the conflict is hampering the team's capabilities.
  3. Listen to feedback from both sides and learn the full story. Seek to understand the conflict's root cause, especially if team members are making negative assumptions about each other. It's also a good idea to ask how members, including those directly involved, would like to see the situation resolved. This forces people to transform from problem makers into problem solvers. Of course, the manager must carefully decide which solutions are most likely to fix the disagreement. Have a discussion with those involved and define expectations for resolution. Maintain cool heads, stop any finger-pointing before it happens and then decide on the solution that works with the team's goals. Managers must be clear and firm. The only winner of this discussion should be the team, not an individual.
  4. See the resolution through to the end. Once you've developed a plan, carefully monitor and communicate with the group. The manager will gain credibility if the problem is resolved, and the entire team will develop new conflict management skills. If expectations go unmet or if promises are broken, then firmly enforce consequences. Seek help from human resources if you feel you're unable to resolve the issue alone. Managers need to oversee the team, but HR can be a facilitator in setting up your conflict management process. If the conflict escalates to the level of harassment or discrimination, then HR should definitely take the lead. Liability for legal damages can be destructive to middle market companies.

Have you ever had to interfere in a disagreement? How did you keep team members calm and establish a solution? Let us know by commenting below.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education. Circle him on Google+.


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