Workplace disagreements are commonplace, but if handled properly they can result in opportunities for innovation, growth and troubleshooting. For example, two employees may have different opinions on how to reach sales targets, which gives way to a vigorous discussion that yields a well thought-out, improved sales approach.
However, if a mere discussion grows into a tense exchange, a supervisor must be ready, willing and able to address the situation. Training supervisors on effective strategies for resolving conflicts will lead to a more productive work environment. Here are six steps to make that happen.
At times, a brewing conflict is difficult to identify. The danger signs may be subtle: a change in posture, avoiding eye contact when speaking or a move toward sarcasm. Learning to recognize signs of disengagement and aggression will make a supervisor’s response to conflict more efficient.
Address the Conflict Head-On
In order to manage conflicts effectively, a supervisor not only must recognize a conflict, but also address it in a timely manner. Ignoring a conflict in the workplace is not a viable option. When stress levels are particularly high due to an impending project or deadline, tensions tend to rise and past slights tend to resurface and give way to open conflict.
Assess the Situation
Antagonistic workplace behaviors may arise due to a number of issues, such as personal conflict; assumptions about another’s motivations; or assumptions about a particular situation.
A supervisor should work to assess a conflict in terms of the situation, and not the individuals involved. The temptation to assess a conflict on an individual level (“Oh, that problem employee again…”) or assessing based on assumptions (“That new salesperson has to be behind this…”) should be avoided.
In addition, a supervisor must assess the situation in a way that includes information on how a conflict was managed, or mismanaged, in the past. For instance, if an employee references a past conflict (“This is just like what happened last year during holiday shift-scheduling”), then the supervisor should investigate past responses, the reasons for the responses and the effectiveness of the approach.
If a conflict recurs because of weak enforcement of a work rule, for example, then a supervisor should take this information into account in reaching a resolution that would serve to eliminate any recurrences.
Take Care With Word Choice
Conflicts must be resolved in a thoughtful manner.
Take your time in crafting statements and responses. Due care must be taken when resolving conflicts. In responding to an employee’s statements about a situation, a supervisor needs to ensure that he or she thoroughly understands the employee’s meaning. If an employee states, “He never thinks of anyone but himself,” then a supervisor may:
- Address the roots of the conflict by asking for observable facts, not conclusory statements;
- Ask additional, detailed questions to ensure that he or she has all the relevant facts; and
- Clarify any information not readily understood.
In addition to taking care with word choice, a supervisor must also pay attention to how the information is conveyed. Tone, emphasis and nonverbal communications are often more important in how a message is perceived than what is actually said.
Whether HR, a supervisor or another employee mediates a conflict, it is important that all parties communicate honestly. If the employer continually makes promises that it cannot keep, then relationships may become strained and, ultimately, workplace morale will be affected.
Being truthful doesn’t require full disclosure of any and all facts. Instead, if the situation deals with matters that call for discretion, a supervisor should set limits when discussing with an employee: “Look, I’m not at liberty to discuss our approach or reasoning in detail, but I can share the following with you…”
Achieving resolutions that reflect the consistent application of rules should be of extreme importance to employers. If there is demonstrable uniformity to handling workplace conflicts, then employees will learn to count on workplace rules, policies and procedures for resolution. This provides a predictability to the workplace that is particularly important when fostering trust in management and peers.
It also sends a clear signal to all employees that a fair and impartial resolution is possible because supervisors are adequately trained on and competent in resolving conflicts.