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How to Resolve Conflict in the Workplace for Aspiring Leaders


major part of business and your career success revolves around people and relationships. Just as in real life, the workplace is full of conflict. Conflict in the workplace comes in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the minor disputes stemming from someone speaking ill of someone else behind their back, to major issues arising between departments due to competing objectives. Large or small, these conflicts can fracture the bonds of relationships between you and your internal (coworkers and managers) and external (vendors and customers of the company) customers.


It is important as an aspiring leader to build your skills in managing through the conflict to repair cracks in relationships. Top performers and leaders strengthen their customer relationships in the midst of conflict by swiftly resolving issues to keep the work effort moving forward unimpeded by the collateral damage caused by the conflict. Individuals with this skill set continue to get things done despite tough situations, and they bring people together in the bumpiest of times. That is one of the main reasons they have advanced in their careers.


As you climb up in the ranks within your organization, you will be put in the position to resolve conflicts more frequently. Most people in the workplace fall into two camps: those who create the conflict, and those who make every attempt to steer clear of conflict. Conflict is a great place to flex your professional and interpersonal muscles. If you are going to have to get in the middle of a conflict regularly, you might as well become proficient at managing it so you are not bogged down and kept from conquering your other responsibilities and objectives. Here are some points for working through these types of situations.


Consider the good guy/good gal syndrome

When you jump into conflict resolution, remember that almost everyone sees themselves as the good guy/good gal in the conflict. Each party has collected the facts and data points that confirm their positive standing. When a situation requires elements of mediation, it helps to consider this, and to understand that you will need to help everyone (yourself included) view the situation from a different vantage point.


Remove emotion and be the bigger person

First and foremost, leave emotion at the door. It is easy to get wrapped up in the emotional components and go down a path of escalating the conflict instead of resolving the dispute. Strive to be the calming force in the situation. It will often require you to be the bigger person first. These situations tend to be emotional. Do everything you can to present a calm and even-keeled approach.

• Slow your rate of speech.

• Use a softer tone.

• Be aware of your feelings.

• Use inviting and open body language.


If you catch yourself getting wrapped up in your emotions and contributing to the conflict, stop, and remind yourself of why you are doing this: to get to a resolution. Competitive people (myself included) tend to see conflict as a competition. If you fall into that category, you will need to fight the urge to “win” the argument. It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking winning is about being right. That is wrong. Winning is getting to a place where everyone feels comfortable moving forward, and not vanquishing your “opponent.”


Be prepared — confer with yourself first

Before you engage in conflict resolution, have a conversation with yourself. Ask the following questions:

1. What is the end goal or mission here?

2. How will your conversation progress the cause and add value to the situation?

3. What results do you want from this difficult conversation or meeting?

4. What needs to be done from your side to end the conflict? 5. What needs to be done from their side to end the conflict?

Preparing and understanding the answers to these questions will help you focus on the situation from all perspectives and take a logical approach, instead of an emotional approach, to resolving the conflict.


Show respect

Typically, in conflict, as emotion creeps in, the involved parties are less than respectful of each other. Start things off on the right foot by reestablishing the courtesy and respect that all parties deserve. Thanking everyone for meeting with you and stating up front that you want to understand their perspective will go a long way in setting the correct tone. Respect the involved parties’ emotions by focusing your phrasing and discussion around behaviors, actions, or your feelings, and not the people involved. Remember, when it feels like a personal attack, it is easy for someone to get defensive and derail the progress toward resolution.


Put safety first

Set the stage by saying that the meeting is a safe place and the discussion will not go outside of the room. Honor that commitment, or trust will be completely broken. Make sure the venue is private, and that the room is set up to foster communication by limiting the number of structural barriers (like tables or chairs) between parties. Let every involved party be heard. All participants need to feel like they can share their side and express their feelings. Having their say is an important part of the resolution process. This exercise is therapeutic and lets others digest issues from a different perspective, which helps everyone take ownership of their respective roles and contributions in this conflict.


Take your time and state the facts

Often it will take time to get the conversation rolling in a productive manner. Early in the dialogue, acknowledge what has been going on. For example: “Ever since our last project I have felt a tension between us that has hampered our ability to work together.” Get the problem out on the table so it can be addressed head-on. In that acknowledgment, avoid any assignment of blame. As you continue with the conversation, state the facts as you know them. Do not express an opinion or make a conjecture about those facts. Encourage others involved in the conversation to share the facts as they know them.


Talking through the facts helps to understand the variables and perspectives at play. In most cases, this helps each person better understand and empathize with the other side of the issue. If you are in a moderator role, you’ll need to corral the discussion if it goes “off track.” It is very easy for emotion to creep in from all parties. When that happens, people start to express their opinions or interpretations of the facts with more spirit and color, which sends the discussion down the wrong track. Gently remind the group what the objective is and refocus conversation toward the sharing of the facts and not assigning blame.


Own it

If you are one of the parties involved in the conflict, take full ownership of mistakes that you made that contributed to the conflict. Mistakes are inevitable. The most important thing is how you respond to those mistakes. Owning your portion demonstrates humility and a commitment to moving the resolution process forward. When you need to, acknowledge the mistake you made and how it impacted others. Do not shortchange how it impacted them. This kind of understanding and acknowledgement is critical in the healing process.


When explaining the mistakes, outline how the factors at play contributed to your misstep to help the other person(s) understand that it was not a case of you wanting to “wrong” them. Be careful not to make excuses and give the appearance of shirking the role you played in the conflict. Just outline the facts and circumstances that helped drive you toward your mistake.


Test your hypothesis

Once each party has had a chance to be heard and share their side of the story, it is appropriate to move the process forward. Be cautious and do not rush the fact-finding part of the process. Once all the facts have been stated and everyone has had an opportunity to share, then proceed by stating your interpretation of the situation based on the facts as you see them. Acknowledge that this is your interpretation. When highlighting mistakes or breakdowns, acknowledge that mistakes are natural and helpful to growth if addressed properly. Take ownership of your contributions to the issues. Then provide the other parties with the opportunity to share their interpretation. You can open the discussion by asking if anyone has a different interpretation or if they agree with your view and/or have anything to add.


Take action and make a commitment

Collaborate with the involved parties to make a joint commitment on next steps and how to handle the situation differently next time. This may require you to propose potential solutions to get the dialogue moving forward. It helps to explain the pros and cons of each of your proposed solutions. Take a matter of-fact approach here, because it will help to steer the objections or discussion to a more logical place rather than an emotional one.


Again, it is important to make sure all parties contribute to this joint resolution. If even a single party does not feel ownership in the resolution, then you have not fully rectified the issue. Bring the discussion back to those holdout individuals by asking them for their thoughts on how to improve the situation and resolution. These are emotional circumstances, and the way to resolution may not follow a logical and linear path.


As the individual leading the process, you will need to do everything you can to include others so as to avoid any suspicions that you are pushing your own agenda. Finding a remedy for the issue is only one part of the equation. Everyone will feel better about the proposed solution if each party commits to what they are going to do moving forward, to avoid making the same mistake again.


Follow through and rebuild

The most important piece in rebuilding the relationship and establishing trust is to follow through on commitments when defining a resolution. Often this is the most neglected part of the process. Sure, everyone gets to a better place and makes commitments to change, but then they fail to follow through. Do this and the trust is irrevocably broken; you will have almost no chance at salvaging a working relationship.


That is why it is hypercritical to follow through on your commitments and help others to do so when possible. This is step one in your reestablishing trust and getting the relationships to a better place. This trust will be the foundation of your relationship moving forward. When done correctly, you will have even stronger relationships than you did before the problems.


Take extra steps to over-communicate in the early stages of the follow- through. Show there is a reason for others to trust again. This also helps to ensure you are getting credit for your follow-through, in case those commitments are not easily seen.


Demonstrate that you are committed to the agreed-upon course of action. This means scheduling a follow-up meeting after a couple of weeks to see how things are going with the other party. Ask them how things are going from their end and if there is anything additional that would help to keep the process moving forward and improve the working relationship. Also in the meeting, share what you have been doing to help thus far.


Don’t worry about being proficient at conflict resolution out of the gate. Each situation is unique and will require different methods to corral the discussion and the emotions toward a positive result. Thus, it is easy to see that this is a skill that requires a great deal of practice. With a solid framework to manage conflict and a desire to get better at it, you will be well positioned to develop a strong skill for resolving conflict. As you improve your ability to resolve conflict, you will notice a material growth in interpersonal relationships with your coworkers and overall effectiveness at getting things done in the office.

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