Are we Solving Conflict or Making it Worse? Tips for Workplace Leaders


Staff and leaders are humans first – and their “positions” second. As humans, each of us face significant stress and pressure both at work and at home. This is truer now than ever, with the significant fatigue and fear related to the pandemic, including its associated restrictions and implications in our personal and professional worlds.

At times, this stress can trigger or aggravate workplace conflict. In order to keep the ever-changing workplace as stable as possible, this conflict needs to be resolved as soon as it becomes apparent. The last thing any team member needs right now (or at any time!) is festering unresolved issues on the team. It’s a costly and stressful distraction that causes harm to many individuals and undermines team productivity and success.

Workplace conflict is not necessarily dysfunctional. It may arise from disagreements over work practices, misunderstandings, sharing of inaccurate second-hand information and/or offensive/hurtful remarks that were made unintentionally, often without the person being aware of the harm they have caused.

Many front-line leaders are asked to resolve these and other conflicts that arise on their teams. When this is done early and effectively, conflicts are resolved, misunderstandings are cleared up and personal hurt and harm is mitigated.

However, when it is ignored – or addressed in an ineffective manner – the conflict often worsens and extends to others on the team, including the leaders themselves.

In this brief article, let’s discuss ways in which you can support “conflict resolution” and not “conflict continuation”.

The MIRROR Method that I developed is rooted in three primary responsibilities of leaders to build legally mandated respectful workplaces: respectful conduct, respectful decision-making and respectful accountability. I will examine “workplace conflict” within the context of each of these.

1. Respectful Conduct

Leaders are expected to model respectful conduct and communication – the world of “double standards” no longer exists (at least as far as the law is concerned!). As part of this, leaders must participate in constructive conflict resolution. This includes:

  • being open to listening to complaints or concerns from staff, without “making it personal”, becoming defensive, engaging in personal attacks or “writing individuals off”;
  • reducing the chance of conflict by having challenging conversations in a confidential venue, devoid of public shaming, and ensuring those conversations, while sometimes critical in content, are not delivered in an intimidating or humiliating manner; and
  • ensuring that leaders do not “model” disrespectful “conflict continuation” by participating in gossip about staff with whom they disagree or are entrenched in conflict.

Thus, leaders having to communicate or respond to complaints about them/others must ensure that their own language, tone and demeanour role models how to resolve workplace differences in a respectful and professional manner.

2. Respectful Decision-Making

Leaders may be able to prevent many workplace conflicts by ensuring their direction and expectations are communicated in a clear and consistent manner to everyone on their team. Ambiguity and inconsistency in leadership messaging creates conflict.

Similarly, leaders must ensure that they do not make decisions – about work assignments, promotions, scheduling and leaves in a manner that suggests differential or preferential treatment. When certain staff think that others are being treated better than them, without clear explanation or rationale, they grow resentful and hostile, which often leads to intra-team conflict. To avoid this, leaders must ensure that their decisions are professional, not personal and must be prepared to share this “evidence” with their teams in a transparent manner.

Even if leaders do not contribute to workplace conflict, they are often asked to resolve it. When this occurs, leaders must ensure they inquire into the conflict in an objective and impartial manner, without taking sides or prejudging the issue. When leaders get involved in a way that looks biased, they not only fail to resolve the conflict, they often make it worse.

3. Respectful Accountability

Leaders have a legal duty to effectively inquire into – and resolve – any type of dysfunction that is affecting workplace respect and productivity – this includes unresolved workplace conflict. Regardless of who is to blame and why, ongoing workplace conflict between individuals disrupts and divides the team as a whole. Camps are created, gossip takes over and team members feel pressured to take sides; as a result, accurate, timely and productive work becomes secondary. 

Mandating conflict resolution between team members is as important as holding individuals accountable for their own contribution to it.  If team members cannot resolve conflict on their own, leaders must get involved to ensure that it happens.  As part of this process, leaders must allow each person to be fully heard, examine each of their concerns and interests and then help devise a plan to move forward on better footing. While it is important for leaders to be empathetic, they must not get “sucked into” the first or last story they hear – as they are expected to lead and support their entire team, in contrast to showing up only for those they perhaps like more than others.

Given the importance of effective conflict resolution on team harmony and stability, it is surprising that leaders are not given mandatory training in this area. Conflict resolution is a skill, not an “intuitive gene” with which leaders are born, and requires substantive knowledge and significant hands-on experience. Leaders who are not trained in this area should not be “scolded” for getting it wrong – they should be supported in “making things right”.

I am excited to announce that on March 11th (back by popular demand!), I will be hosting a 45-minute complimentary webinar at 10:00 am PT. This webinar will delve deeper into the topics discussed in this blog. To sign up, contact us through our website.

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