Managing Conflict in the Workplace Requires Effort and Empathy

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From revamping the hiring process to raising capital, business leaders can get so overwhelmed by challenges that they miss one of the toughest: managing conflict in the workplace.

Conflicts between employees are inevitable, no matter what your industry or how much emphasis your organization places on culture and workplace chemistry.

The average U.S. employee spends 2.8 hours a day dealing with workplace conflict, according to a study from CPP, the publisher of the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment. 38 percent of U.S. employees believe conflict management is a critical leadership skill, according to the CPP study.

Serious conflicts threaten company morale and productivity. As a business leader, do you know how to handle disagreements between employees successfully?

The first step should be to involve HR, which will determine if an investigation is necessary. Depending on the severity of the incident, some managers might be able to resolve the issue first if they have been equipped with proper training.

Mediation: A How-To Guide

The first step to diffusing the conflict: address it immediately.

This doesn’t mean managers should quickly take a side. Instead, they must address the situation and encourage honest feedback from all involved parties. Open discussion demonstrates that management cares about the rank and file. This approach engenders trust, which will squash tensions from the start.

Mediating managers or other leaders will hear things that could make them uncomfortable. They’ll make decisions the disagreeing parties might not like. But employees expect management to mediate conflict, and shirking that responsibility will only make the problem worse.

If you’re the mediator, it’s helpful to first gauge your ability to communicate with employees during trying times. The Forbes Coaches Council recommends the following questions:

  • How comfortable are you having tough conversations?
  • How do you create an open dialogue with your team, regardless of difficult circumstances?
  • How do you exhibit poise and self-control in the presence of confrontations?
  • How comfortable are you with giving negative feedback?

Make every attempt to humanize the situation. Entering a conflict with a healthy dose of empathy is key, according to the Division of Continuing Education Professional Development at Harvard University. Reflect on how the people involved are feeling and try to see things from their perspectives.

Empathy allows you to frame language in terms that offer comfort rather than assign blame. Start the conversation with an offer to involve the person: “I could use your help in getting to the bottom of this.”

Empathy requires listening. Temper any instinct to interrupt, and be attentive to what employees say. When an employee is finished speaking, repeat key points to ensure you understand the matter — and ask questions to clarify. Identify and summarize the points of disagreement and ask the parties involved if they agree with your assessment.

Resolution: The End Game

The hardest part of managing conflict in the workplace is reaching a resolution. It’s possible that one or even both sides won’t ever reconcile.

  • Strive for some agreement. Even one small change that could improve the relationship. The employees will almost certainly share some commonalities. So emphasize those ties when advocating a truce.
  • Above all, don’t waver in your determination to solve the problem. Detail the reasoning behind your proposed resolution and continue to stress the importance of collaboration.
  • If the employees resist mediation, get human resources (HR) involved. A trained HR representative will build upon your efforts and convey that the issue is now severe enough to go beyond the well-intentioned work of the supervisor.

Building a workplace culture that encourages honest feedback and places a premium on respect will encourage your employees to do their best to avoid conflict. Quickly resolving employee conflict through mediation demonstrates respect for individuals and the importance of teamwork.

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