Every team experiences conflict. Whether it’s a battle for control, a clash of priorities, or just a difference in understanding, some degree of conflict is a fact of life in most work groups, civic organizations, neighborhoods or even families, for that matter.
Many conflicts are quickly resolved with little effort, part of the everyday give and take of group life, but some require intervention.
Most of the leaders I speak with, even those who are the most serious about leadership, dread becoming involved in conflict resolution. And with good reason—it’s a challenging process, and the stakes are often high. But it’s a situation where procrastination can be enormously destructive as tensions deepen and people take sides. From a more positive perspective,
Resolving conflict is an opportunity to strengthen your entire team by demonstrating principles of compromise and collaborative solutions.
To get the most benefit, how you resolve conflict is as important as the outcome. Even though the process is usually carried out privately, its influence will be highly visible within your team. A simple three-step method works well in most situations:
Begin by gathering information from each party separately. Remember that these discussions are frequently stressful to the person being questioned, and keep the tone professional but not hostile. Ensure you have privacy and an undisturbed block of time. You’ll also want to take notes, because the act of recording interviews has a negative effect and may limit candor. Focus your attention as carefully as possible to hear what’s being said but also to realize what isn’t being said and to pick up on tone and body language.
From the beginning, be clear about confidentiality and other considerations, which may vary depending the situation and your organization. (For example, issues involving possible discrimination or harassment may fall under specific guidelines.) For conflicts without such special requirements, emphasize to everyone involved that the process is about discovering where expectations and communication have broken down so they can be repaired. Often just allowing each party to feel they’re being heard and understood will go far in calming a situation.
Once you’ve gathered information, put some serious thought into understanding the situation. The most helpful exercise may be to put yourself in the role of each party, asking “If I were this person, what would the best outcome be?” Pay particular attention to balancing priorities and needs and ensuring that any divisions of responsibility and sacrifice are equitable. You may want to bring in an HR professional or a senior administrator for advice, or consult an outside source to validate your understanding and direction.
Once you’ve decided on a resolution, call both parties together and present your understanding of the conflict together with the proposed resolution. You may wish to leave some points open to be decided during the course of the meeting to give each party ownership in the solution and allow them to begin rebuilding a working relationship. If appropriate, include a timeline for following up to keep things on track. If the plan involves a change in roles or responsibilities, you may also want to discuss how that information will be shared with the entire team.
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Conflict management is probably never going to be something leaders look forward to doing. But if it’s done well, the positive effect on your team’s levels of trust and morale will make the effort well worth your time.