Recent statistics suggest that as many as seven out of ten employees are disengaged at work. One contributing factor is the disruption caused by interpersonal conflicts between employees.
Clearly, daily on-the-job interactions between people provide fertile ground for misunderstandings, differences of opinion, and even emotional outbursts. It would, of course, be wonderful if conflicts among employees would be quickly and completely resolved by the parties involved. Too often, however, such resolutions are surface-level only, with deeper emotions festering below.
Interpersonal conflicts are often particularly galling to managers. One of my clients once lamented, “Can’t they just grow up and do their jobs? We can’t afford the disruption this is causing, and I don’t have time to deal with it!”
The disruption the company was experiencing was very apparent. Indeed, the conflict which had started as a somewhat insignificant disagreement had grown into a major problem. The molehill had become a mountain.
I empathized with my client, but then challenged his thinking. “I know how busy you are, but it’s clear to me that you must make time to deal with this. In fact, I believe that one of the most important roles of any leader is conflict resolution.”
This was not what he wanted to hear, nor is it a topic that many leaders are anxious to address. Most function in the vain hope that interpersonal conflicts will never occur, or at least will be minimal. I guarantee that bubble will burst, sooner or later!
Fortunately, there are proven strategies that will help leaders to foster conflict-resolving cultures in their enterprises. They involve an investment of time that may seem intrusive to an executive’s busy schedule, but when followed, they will ultimately save time and money.
Six leadership keys for dealing with interpersonal conflicts are:
- Recognize that interpersonal conflicts are inevitable. If you employ people, such occurrences are unavoidable.
- Be observant and attentive, hone your personal radar to pick up the signals that a significant conflict may be brewing. Adopt a gemba attitude; i.e., seek out problems with an attitude that they are best solved quickly at their source. Strive to deal with them before they metastasize.
- Initiate “interested interventions.” Often this is best undertaken as separate 1-1 meetings with each party to the conflict. Be in an unemotional “fact-finding” mode. As Joe Friday used to say in the TV show, Dragnet, “just the facts, ma’am.” Manage yourself: no anger, no reactiveness—and don’t take sides.
Ask questions to develop understanding of (a) the root cause of the conflict, (b) the positions of each party to the conflict, and (c) the common interests of those parties. Strive for clarity regarding common interests rather than specific solutions to the problem. Leave solutions to be determined by the parties to the conflict.
- Make it clear that you expect the parties involved to sit down and work together to resolution. This should ideally happen without your presence. Express your trust that they can—and must—resolve things among themselves such that common interests (such as achieving the company’s desired outcomes) are not disrupted. If they can solve it on their own, you will have mentored them effectively to resolve future concerns.
- Let them know that while you will not be in the room for these “meetings of the minds,” you look forward to hearing and understanding their solutions.
- Prepare each party to defuse emotions by suggesting a few mindset adjustments:
- They should come with listening ears and a desire to see things through the eyes of their adversary. As author Stephen R. Covey said, “Seek to understand before being understood.”
- They should be vulnerable, willing to take barbs and criticisms—even if they don’t believe they deserve them. They should avoid forming “counter punches” to what they hear. Remind them that even when we feel we have done our best, there are likely ways we can improve.
- They should seek common ground. Often conflicts persist when someone feels they are right, and their way is the only way. Encourage them to not be that someone!
- Encourage them to be quick to forgive prior slights, harsh words, or actions. It’s appropriate to share their feelings and express how they feel hurt, but not without a commitment to forgive the action and the person, no matter how wrong we believe them to be.
- Finally, counsel them to be kind. Dr. Wayne Dyer wrote, “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.