When conflict becomes mean spirited and starts including personal attacks, group morale can quickly move to the dark side, the bane of every manager. Recently I was asked to help two employees resolve a conflict that was having a negative impact on everyone around them. Routine tasks were still getting done but the tension in the group cast a long shadow over the work day. The conflict had progressed to the point where employees were dividing into two camps.
In my initial contact with one of the employees I ask what he hoped would be the outcome of our meeting. He immediately responded, “Fire him!” In most cases of negative conflict at work, the problem, if left unattended (not managed) grows worse over time. In this case good friends became mortal enemies.
Here are a few tips for managing negative personal conflict among coworkers:
1. Get involved sooner, rather than later. Time alone seldom, if ever, solves the problem.
Managers should respond to the conflict early on and set clear expectations for each employee. Many managers are inclined to avoid dealing with conflict since it is emotionally uncomfortable and awkward and they often feel unprepared for this task.
2. Meet together with both employees.
Separate meetings will only create more distrust. Trust is the foundation for constructive conflict resolution where team members can disagree and have passionate debates that result in creative solutions.
3. Upend expectations by starting the meeting on a positive note.
The two angry employees were asked at the initial session to share something they valued about the other person. As I held my breath and they recovered from planned attack mode, they were able to point out positive behaviors of the other person.
4. Relax, breathe and reduce tension.
With all the tension in the room this is easily said, not so easily done. Keep your facial expression attentive. Don’t frown. Don’t shake your head. When you look relaxed you look confident and helpful.
5. Listen very carefully.
Don’t jump into the conversation too quickly. Trust that a solution will come from the employees. Often the solution comes when each employee discovers that their assumptions were totally wrong.
6. Remain objective rather than finding fault.
Most often both parties are at fault and there is no simple right and wrong answer. Your goal is for them to solve the problem so they are able to work together.
7. Follow up with more meetings.
The initial meeting is only a first step in resolving the conflict. Schedule a follow up meeting at the end of the first meeting. Remember, it may be tempting to declare a premature victory because dealing with conflict is uncomfortable. Don’t expect a magic resolution in one meeting. Also, be careful to not fall back on individual meetings as that can easily devolve into finger pointing.
Managing interpersonal conflict may be a leader’s most difficult task. It requires exceptional skills, many of which do not come naturally. I would be very interested in hearing about your stories of managing destructive conflicts and what worked for you.
Dr. Robert Kagey, a clinical psychologist, is a co-founder of Comprehensive EAP. He has extensive experience developing innovative approaches to fostering healthy, respectful and productive work environments.