Managing conflict is critically important leadership skill

18 Jun 2018

There are certain things they just don’t teach you in business school.

Any leader will tell you that the success of an organization comes down to the people that run it day in and day out. From the entry-level staff to the executive team, it’s those who make-up the organization that determine its direction and ultimately, it’s growth.

As the backbone to the company, you would think the employees should be at the forefront of any leader’s priorities. However, buried in the productivity side of profits and margins, the emotional well being of the staff can often take a back seat. So when an office conflict arises, a department is being poorly managed, or employee grievances start funneling through, leaders tend to outsource consultants to handle the issue.

Leaving it to an impartial source can seem like a perfect solution. After all, they’re experts in the field and should be better equipped to fix the problem than you, right? Unfortunately this thinking could actually aggravate the issue rather than repair it. A study by CPP Global found that 85 per cent of employees experience conflict and spend up to 2.1 hours a week dealing it. Furthermore, 70 per cent see managing conflict as a critically important leadership skill, with more than 54 per cent saying that managers could handle disputes better by addressing underlying tensions before things go wrong.

Imagine in high school if every time you had a question for the teacher, he or she ushered in another student to help rather than personally guide you through the problem. How would that make you feel? Undervalued, ignored, and of low-priority for one. And how would you view the teacher? Lazy, uninvested, and hierarchical, among others.

The whole point of being a leader is to lead. You have to be involved on all levels. Not only will this earn your staff’s respect, but it will also make your employees feel valued and heard. While there’s no doubt it can be daunting, these types of interpersonal issues can be easily managed if you abide by the following:

Just listen Whether they take the defensive or offensive, let them talk until they’ve exhausted all of their points. Ask open-ended questions, like “How does this make you feel?” and “What are you hoping the outcome will be?” so you can tap into the emotional aspect. This is imperative to start repairing the issue and rebuild the culture.

Take notes Write down key points while the person is talking. If you’re dealing with a conflict between two or three people, emotions and facts become blurred. At the end of the conversation, summarize what the employee has just said and repeat it back to them. This will confirm you’ve listened and valued their feedback. Plus, it will allow them to add or correct any information.

Be consistent Talking about problems only when they arise is a big part of the problem. Conversations must be maintained regularly to prevent any major issues, and it’s never too late to start. Schedule monthly 15 minute conversations with all levels of staff at least once a quarter so you can stay in tune with the cultural dynamics and operational challenges.

Stay neutral Unless it’s an issue that causes immediate harm, do not pick a side. State this clearly before you start the conversation, and let it be known that the end goal is to find a mutual resolution or reconciliation to move forward.

Buried in the productivity side of profits and margins, the emotional well being of the staff can often take a back seat

Do something The difference between good managers and great leaders is that the latter actually applies the information to move things forward. Don’t make empty promises or wait for the issue to work itself out. If you’ve just spent valuable time listening to your employees, then you need to show them you’re all action, not talk. Better yet, get their input on implementing a system to make a department run more seamless.

Conflict and leadership go hand-in-hand. Disagreements are a part of life, and they’re especially a part of business. When you spend 40-plus hours a week together, tensions are inevitable. So when these arise, a leader must be present and get involved. If not, you could be facing low morale, poor culture, and even lose key members of your team.

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