GOOD QUESTION: In my department I have a manager and her direct report who are really at odds with each other on a project. People have dropped by my office to tell me that their frustration with each other is really causing challenges during larger project review meetings. What is the best way to approach and resolve this issue?
WHY ASK HER: Christine is a seasoned expert on helping leaders and teams reduce internal conflict, improve employee engagement, and more effectively engage with customers and prospects. Over the past eight years, she has taught hundreds of leaders how to be more effective through her “Leadership Through Conflict and Change” course and helped many with specific challenges through private executive coaching. Her background includes an undergraduate and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, certifications in psychotherapy and executive coaching, along with years in management consulting focused on implementation of large change management and restructuring initiatives.
A: There are many ways that leaders address this issue—unfortunately, they often don’t lead to the best result. Here are a few common approaches that leaders take, and their pitfalls:
Speak to the manager and delegate getting the issue resolved. The challenge with this approach is that it does not address what leadership issues the manager may have. Sometimes, the manager may lack the skills to effectively engage the employee. Delegating the issue to a manager without the ability to properly address the issue can lead to high turnover and the loss of some great talent before the gap in the manager’s skills surfaces as the cause.
Decide that the manager needs training. Many times, when a conflict arises, leaders quickly resort to communications or leadership training. Training creates many great benefits, but it often uses generalizations, which may not help that manager become more effective at resolving a very specific type of employee issue.
Speak with numerous team members to gather information about the current issues, and then create a plan to resolve them. This approach can require hours of a leader’s time, taking them away from numerous other important and more strategic activities. It also creates a culture in which a disagreement gets put under a microscopic lens and can be overanalyzed if not careful.
Defer the issue to human resources. Bringing in your counterparts in human resources can definitely help to resolve employee issues. The caveat: if leaders regularly delegate issue resolution to another department without feeling fully engaged or accountable to improve the situation, the efforts made may only result in a short-term improvement.
What’s an effective approach that generates a positive outcome?
Teaching leaders to facilitate a single yet powerful conversation between two individuals in conflict. It is a priceless skill, and when leaders are involved in the conversation they grow further insight into the people, management, and business issues that exist within their team. In addition, this approach saves hours of time in individual conversations and encourages a culture in which people address and resolve challenges head on.
It’s important to highlight that the end goal of the meeting is to create a more harmonious working relationship between the two individuals. Many times, individuals feel the purpose of the meeting is to find out who is at fault for the conflict. Finding fault is far less productive and brings out the more defensive feelings in each individual.
It’s very important that there are no interruptions, and that the other party listens with curiosity and not reaction. This step is critical!
Instead of having them focus on past conversations that were tense and unproductive, encourage both parties to talk through how future situations could be more effective. Encourage discussion around how things could be different than they are today as opposed to focusing on finding faults.
Ask each party to agree to a future behavior change. Many times, once two people have talked through a conflict, they assume that the other person will change in the future. This simply sets the stage for more conflict. If each party can highlight and take ownership of what they can contribute to improve the situation, many times both individuals will feel more collaborative in their future work together.
As leaders, how we resolve conflict between individuals is one of the most important things we do to influence the culture on our teams.
If you have questions about how to reduce conflict within your own organization or team, including what courses are available through our Advancement Centre, you can reach out to Christine directly at [email protected].