Resolving Conflict as a Leader

🙋‍♀️ This is a cross-post from my newsletter, Leading by Design. If you liked the post below, consider subscribing! I post one issue per month.

Photo by Nikola Johnny Mirkovic on Unsplash

Photo by Nikola Johnny Mirkovic on Unsplash

In a typical workplace setting, conflict is unavoidable. When you gather a bunch of passionate people in a room, there’s no way the stars will align, causing everyone to move in the same direction without even the slightest friction. Take into account the complicated power dynamics because of reporting lines, and the mix gets even more explosive.

In tech, we often tend to talk about conflict as something we must avoid at all costs, but the truth is that creative friction is a precondition for building innovative teams. Don’t forget that conflict is often necessary to identify and mitigate business risks. For example, a company’s Sales and Operations departments should constantly be at odds because of their incompatible objectives (Sales aims for personalisation, Operations for consistency).

To reap the benefits of creative friction, we need a well-managed conflict that is constructive instead of dragging the team into a downward spiral. Disagreement can often signify that the two sides with clashing opinions could be ideal teammates, as they have different perspectives on the same problem.

How not to conflict

When we talk about creative friction, we should stress how the two sides must work together to reach a solution. There’s a right and multiple wrong ways to do that.

An obvious way to approach conflict resolution unproductively is to reject compromise, full stop. Refusing even to consider meeting the other side halfway is often caused by an over-inflated ego, where compromise means weakness. In addition, some people don’t know how to compromise, and they end up stuck in an unproductive situation that doesn’t serve them anymore.

On the other hand, people who avoid confrontation often opt for over-compromising, rushing to remove themselves from a triggering, stressful situation. That might provide some temporary relief from stress; however, it causes feelings of victimisation in the long run. The whole situation seems unfair and unequal for over-compromisers, while the behaviour of those that refuse to cooperate gets rewarded and reinforced.

When conflict goes unchecked

As a leader, there’s a chance that it’s already too late when you finally spot conflict in your team. You have to face the problem early and head-on, as it’s rarely (if ever) “just” a minor interpersonal issue that will take care of itself.

Consider your team’s conflict debt: the sum of all undiscussed and unresolved issues that hold you back. Conflict debt might include anything from avoiding corrective feedback to hesitating to make critical strategic decisions.

The cost of all unchecked conflict in your team can be pretty high. Resentment, apathy, low employee engagement, and high turnover rates might be a symptom of conflict debt. The business overhead also increases, especially considering the time and effort to replace a team member with significant institutional knowledge.

Resolve conflict like a boss leader

Don’t let any conflict escalate. If you sense tension during a team meeting or while talking with a direct report in your 1:1, make sure to address it immediately. Take a long, hard look at the situation and decide if the conflict in question is productive or not. Don’t push things out of sight. Unchecked conflicts can cause feelings of injustice to your team, severely affecting productivity and engagement.

Avoid abusing your authority. You don’t want to order people to stop fighting, as if you’re the headmaster of an elementary school. Dictating what people should or shouldn’t do takes away their ability to choose to solve the issue together. Not to mention that if you intervene using your authority as a manager, you start a culture shift. People will be expecting you to step in and solve their problems for them from now on.

Have a plan in place. Start working on the resolution by meeting with both sides, making sure you hear what they have to say. Research shows that meeting separately at first is more successful, provided that you put in the effort to understand the problem. My advice would be to start by meeting both sides separately to build empathy and understand the root of the issue, then move to a joint conversation to problem-solve together.

Give both sides time to vent. Workplace conflicts can often get heated and emotional. Make sure you give both sides the time to talk about their feelings. Do they feel angry? Resentful? Helpless? Approach with empathy (“I understand that this is hard for you”) instead of sympathy (“I’m sorry you feel this way”). Practice active listening and ask relevant questions to get to the root of the problem. Even if you disagree with what you hear, refrain from interrupting. People rarely pay attention to what you say if they haven’t finished talking.

Understand people’s implicit motives. Focus on finding out more about what each side really wants and why. Ask them about their priorities - what is most and least important to them? Use the question “Why?” repeatedly until you understand the motives and intentions of each side. Keep in mind that people are unlikely to change their behaviour unless they gain something from it, so focus on finding the “what’s in it for me?” factor.

Shape a positive conflict culture

It’s normal to shy away from conflict; our tribal brains want us to belong and be liked. However, being likeable should not be a manager’s priority at all times. To create a productive conflict culture in your team, focus on psychological safety first. You want to encourage honest disagreement, but on the other hand, you must ensure that all team members showcase decency and respect when arguing.

If you happen to manage team members that see conflict as a zero-sum game, try to explain that no one “wins” or “loses” in this: you either approach it productively, and the whole team moves forward, or you don’t, and progress suffers.

Another step that could benefit the whole team is specialised conflict resolution and mediation training. Most of us never get any help in recognising and resolving conflict, spending most of our careers running away from it. However, when managers keep a positive outlook and approach conflict in a systematic way, we can help our teams work more closely together in the long run.

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