Conflict Management Do’s and Don’ts for leaders
Workplaces generate conflict. Sometimes I think creative workplaces generate even more conflict. Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts to keep in mind as you deal with conflict in your organization. Mostly basic stuff, but a reminder is often in order.
DO Identify the problem and name it.
I live in Seattle, the home of the passive-aggressive workplace, where conflict is often ignored, buried, or denied. When repeated arguments, tension or interpersonal hostility exist, you need to name it and address it.
DO encourage people to sort it out themselves, but be willing to intervene.
Ideally, your employees have the skills to address and resolve conflict between themselves. But by the time things get to you, those things haven’t worked. But, yes, where possible, let’s encourage people to reconcile conflict themselves. In some cases, you or another manager may need to mediate and keep the conversation positive and focused on actions that can change the dynamics.
DO look beneath the surface to find out what is fueling the conflict
First, talk to each side alone. Understand what’s really going on—hint: it often isn’t the first thing they bring up. Often hidden issues are causing tension. If conflict is a fire, then the following are gasoline.
• Identity and competence. We’re proud of our work and most of us have a lot invested in our competence on the job. People who sense a threat to their identity or competence often react with anger, which can seem irrational or overblown if we don’t understand that they perceive their competence or identity are being questioned.
• Fear. Most of us are afraid of losing what we already have – our job or title or position – or not getting what we think we need – a raise, respect, opportunities. Fear is a potent motivator and it can be very toxic in the workplace.
Here’s an example:
Joe can’t get Amy finish her work on time. Amy has a bad attitude. They clash. If you know that Joe fears not getting promoted because Amy’s late work makes his team miss deadlines and upsets the client then you know what his “gasoline” is. He is afraid he won’t get promoted or that his client will leave the agency. Which is tied to his fear of financial insecurity in his personal life because he and his partner are adopting a child.
Amy tells Joe that she needs more time to do her work right and he doesn’t listen, consistently pushing unrealistic deadlines and not advocating with the client for the time the creative team needs. Identity issues are her “gasoline.” She doesn’t feel like she can do her best work as a creative in his timelines and believes Joe is questioning or discounting her competence and experience.
In these circumstances it is often helpful to try to reframe the narrative for the other person. Amy might feel differently if she understood Joe’s concern around losing the client and his perception that she wasn’t acting like part of the team. Joe might have a different attitude if he understood that Amy heard his complaints as questioning her competence when that was not what he intended. If you can appeal to values they share it can resolve conflict: if teamwork is important to Amy, that can help. If empowering women in the workplace and being a supportive advocate of great creative is important to Joe, that can help.
DO understand your own baggage around conflict.
Be clear about your capacity to tolerate conflict. If you are afraid of conflict, then don’t try to mediate conflicts. It sounds simple, but it is the rare leader who understands their limitations in this area and can get the help they need. Know what you don’t know.
Do you come from a family that avoids conflict? Are you afraid of people who express anger? Do you think people who don’t get angry are weak? Are you afraid of angry women—or men? Do you get caught up in conflict and lose your temper? Do you feel like you have to protect people and leap to their defense?
If you understand your own baggage, then you’ll be better able to help your team work with theirs.
DON’T treat all conflict the same.
If one person sees a conflict as abuse, harassment, or a hostile work environment, then the rules of engagement change, and a leader or an HR professional MUST intervene. The perception of abuse or harassment by the person who feels harassed is what matters, not what you or others involved in the conflict believe. If someone believes that a conflict is based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, or any similar issue, then you must respond appropriately regardless of your personal views. Seek advice from your HR and Legal departments or outside advisors immediately.
In these circumstances please DO NOT sit the perceived harasser and the person being harassed in the same room and try to mediate or discuss what is happening. Keep them apart and deal with them separately until the situation is resolved or appropriate consequences and safeguards are put in place.
DON’T miss the big picture
I worked at an agency where the account team and the creatives were in perpetual conflict. The agency founders were creatives, so the creatives had great offices. The account people had dingy, crowded cubicles and crappy furniture. Efforts to help them work more smoothly stalled until we moved the account team into a better space with nice offices and decent furniture.
If you miss the big picture you can miss some symbolic messages or narratives that might contribute to conflict. Treating an individual or group differently really does cause problems. Addressing inequity—and the perception of inequity—can help immensely.