The 5 Biggest Mistakes Leaders Make When Conflict Surfaces, and How to Avoid Them
Most people fear conflict. The word sounds like ‘combat’ in the minds of many, creating avoidance to approach difficult conversations, deal with resistance, and manage interpersonal conflict of one’s team. A lack of knowing how to fix team conflict often keeps leaders up at night, and when mismanaged, workplace conflict has a negative effect on team well-being. Statistics from the American Institute of Stress cites interpersonal issues as the second most common stressors of the workplace today next to workload.
According to an article by Jack Kelly in Forbes titled, “People Don’t Leave Bad Jobs, They Leave Bad Bosses,” people don’t typically quit jobs—they quit managers. With the average cost of employee turnover being 33% of the salary, huge profit and productivity is being forfeited when employees leave the stress and toxicity of their workplace. Good people are worth investing in because trust is high and costs are low when relationships are strong, and although conflict is inevitable, suffering from it is optional at best, or can be minimized at least.
In my two decades of experience helping teams resolve conflict, I’ve learned there’s only one way through conflict, and that is through it! Embracing conflict to problem solve, or working through mediation to resolve the prohibitive problem of interpersonal issues leads team members through discomfort, to peace, professional growth, and productive lessons. Yet, many managers and supervisors avoid the discomfort of going through it, and stay stuck in the suffering, not knowing the way out. For this reason, I’ve developed the Sandbox System™, and wrote the playbook, Sandbox Strategies for the New Workplace: Conflict Resolution from the Inside Out, for all levels of teams to embrace building their greatest career.
Leaders can play a significant role in managing and coaching through conflict, by avoiding these five typical mistakes.
- Stop Avoiding
When I ask leaders how they’ve contributed to their team’s conflict, they admit they should have dealt with it sooner. The challenge is that they didn’t know how to intervene, or where to seek help. Conflict left unresolved festers and expands into something much larger and more complex to resolve. The best time to resolve conflict is now! Like a fire that develops and requires immediate attention to contain and suppress it, managing conflict as it arises will prevent escalation.
- Involve Everyone
Trying to resolve issues without all the parties is not likely to produce a good outcome. Often, a manager feels obligated to hear the complaints of one team member about their colleague and then go to that colleague to convey and convince change. It rarely works because the manager ends up bouncing back-and-forth between the two (or more) parties trying to find common ground, but the reality is that you can’t solve a set of circumstances on behalf of other people. You can’t do their talking or their listening for them, so the endeavor ends up being a “he said / she said” game. You need to bring them together for a conversation.
- Don’t Undermine Authority
If an employee goes to their supervisor and is unsatisfied with the response, they communicate up the chain. How the team member up the chain entertains the complaint is very important to maintain the structure of the organization, and not undermine the authority of the supervisor. Example, Sally copies her supervisor’s manager in an email about a complaint or goes completely around her supervisor to the manager. The manager should ensure that the supervisor is involved in resolving the issue to prevent undermining the authority and integrity of the manager and the organizational structure.
- Don’t Accommodate Division
Accommodating people to work apart is a big mistake over time. I’ve seen many crooked lines on the org chart to accommodate people who can’t play nice in their team sandbox, and it’s fertile ground for conflict. I’ve also seen colleagues separated physically or across departments to avoid conflict and it isn’t the best solution. What is best, is that people seek to understand each other and come to a workable solution, not a ‘special arrangement’ that keeps them from working together when everyone else around them is expected to get along.
- Don’t Get Emotionally Entangled
One of the most common, awkward, and difficult situations is to manage ‘friends’. When someone gets promoted from within, they’re often managing those they used to socialize with, and need different boundaries and loyalties. Confiding with team members that one manages is also a common entanglement. It can be lonely at the top, and a good mastermind or network of professionals in similar positions is a safe way to connect and share feelings and stories about the challenges of being a leader.
By preventing these five mistakes, you’ll be building more peace, productivity, and profits in your organization. In cases where conflict situations need intervention, an external provider can help with facilitated conversation, coaching, or alternative dispute resolution (ADR).
Written by Penny Tremblay.
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