Manager Survival Series: Managing conflict

Here are some steps to take when your employees aren’t getting along.
By Doug Blizzard

Editor’s note: Managers must cope with a variety of frustrating people issues: unmotivated employees, managing their peers, underperformance, poor attitudes, remote employees, conflict, personal hygiene, interpersonal problems, and communication, to name a few. Over the next few months, HR expert Doug Blizzard will address many of these issues in the “Manager Survival Series.” This is the second column in that series.

Click here to read the first article in the series: The chronically late or absent employee

Of all the skills required to be a successful manager, the art of managing conflict is among the most important. As a manager, a good part of your job involves getting people to do things they may not want to do, work with people they don’t get along with, or discuss ideas they may not agree with. The ability to recognize conflict, understand what’s causing it, and then work through it swiftly will serve you well as a manager.

Here are some steps to take when your employees aren’t getting along:

When the situation is at fault: Often we’re too quick to blame conflict on the people involved, when it’s the situation they’re in that’s really to blame. If the situation is at fault, enlist the people who are at odds to help remedy things. Ask them to help redefine the process, adjust roles, reallocate resources, improve the technology, or take whatever steps are necessary to move forward.

Though conflict caused by situations can be easier to fix than interpersonal conflict, you still can’t afford to ignore it. Otherwise, it may escalate into a real conflict between employees that can be very destructive.

When the people involved are at fault: For any manager, one of the most difficult situations to deal with is when two very skilled employees just don’t mesh. They argue constantly, or perhaps even worse, engage in passive-aggressive behavior. They might complain to other staff members about each other, and, before you know it, the entire office can become embroiled in the clash, with people taking sides, other arguments starting—and work productivity suffers. I’ve seen these situations get so bad that employees leave because the workplace is so toxic.

If you don’t think you have any personality conflicts on your team, then you are simply not paying attention. Conflict is inevitable when many people work together. Here are some ideas to help you resolve interpersonal conflict:

  • Recognize that the conflict exists. Don’t ignore it and hope it will go away.
  • Talk to the employees individually. There are two sides to every story, so understand both people’s viewpoints. Your job is to just ask questions and listen. Don’t judge or argue. You may get lucky and find that a misunderstanding is causing the conflict. Or you may find that in fact one of the individuals is just plain wrong and, if so, you can address that situation. More than likely, however, both employees’ positions are a mixture of right and wrong and resolving the issue will require give-and-take from both of them.
  • Set expectations. Make it clear to the employees that the conflict and resulting behaviors must stop immediately. Ask each person to agree to work to resolve the conflict.

    But what if one of them refuses to change? In that case, and if the conflict is serious enough, you’ll need to face the reality that they may just need to go work somewhere else. You can’t progress through the conflict if the individuals aren’t committed to resolving it.

  • Meet with both employees together. After talking to both employees individually, it’s time to get them together with you as the facilitator. Share your observations, but avoid attacking personalities. Focus on behaviors instead. Explain what is expected of both employees in terms of their behavior toward one another. If you have a conduct policy, remind them of what it says. Focus on how their conflict is affecting their own performance and that of the team. Sometimes the realization that their livelihood may be at stake will shock people back to reality. Most importantly, make the two employees accountable for sorting out their differences. Get their suggestions on what they can do to resolve the conflict and improve working relationships.

When you’re really stuck: If this meeting goes nowhere, you may want to enlist the help of another party such as a human resources professional or even your employee assistance program. If you work for a larger company, you may be able to transfer one of the employees to another department, though that tactic is usually only a short-term fix. Ultimately, if the conflict can’t be resolved, you may end up losing both employees. Recognize that keeping them may not be worth the emotional toll the conflict is having on them and the rest of your team.

One last thought: Many times conflict in your workplace is caused by you not doing your job. Avoiding problems, tolerating poor performers, not providing enough tools and resources for your people, creating confusing processes, not communicating, and the like all lead to negative outcomes. Don’t be one of those managers who’s too busy to manage.

The best way to create a healthy environment with less negative conflict is to talk regularly to your employees. Get to know them. Show them you care. That way, when problems do come up, they can be resolved faster and more effectively since you’ve already opened up the communication channels. 

Doug Blizzard, MBA, is vice president for membership at CAI, a nonprofit employers’ association handling HR, compliance, and people development. To comment on this story, email Chris Baysden, senior manager for newsletters at AICPA.

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