5 Mistakes Leaders Make When Resolving Employee Conflicts

Here are 5 do’s and don’ts for conflict resolution in the workplace.

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Use these 5 methods to resolve conflicts in a way that benefits everyone.

Here's what you need to know:

  • Workplace conflict is inevitable
  • Address problems promptly
  • Engage in active listening
  • Understand different communication styles
  • Maintain a calm, compassionate tone
  • Follow up on issues after mediation sessions

Have you ever worked at a place where everyone worked hard, agreed with each other, and had identical communication styles? Yeah, we haven’t either. The reason is that these types of workplaces simply do not exist. Human beings have different personalities, values, aspirations, habits, pet peeves, and opinions, which means workplace conflict is inevitable.

No business is immune to employee issues, whether it’s a misunderstanding about sales commission or frustration about a quarterly performance review. Even remote employees disagree. 80% of remote professionals have experienced workplace conflict, according to recent studies.

While leaders cannot prevent arguments or tension from happening, they can control their reactions to them. Proper conflict management creates healthier and more productive workplaces. Leaders can resolve employee conflicts without letting them fester by learning to confront problems head-on, listening carefully, understanding different communication styles, responding thoughtfully, and following up.

5 do’s and don’ts of conflict resolution in the workplace

Conflict resolution skills are critical for business leaders of all types and in all industries. Conflict often reduces productivity and morale if not appropriately addressed, so it’s essential to have a strategy for handling discourse.

Conflicts can occur between coworkers, bosses, employees, or between workers and customers. Common workplace conflicts include personality clashes, frustration over salary or commissions, miscommunications, or anger over a performance review.

Although some disagreements have a clear “winner,” others are not as clear. While it goes without saying that employers should have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, it’s not always so obvious how they should handle diversity and inclusion issues.

Conflicts can occur between coworkers, bosses, employees, or between workers and customers.

No matter what type of conflict is happening, it’s best to address problems privately with a neutral party to mediate conversations. Here are our top 5 do’s and don’ts for conflict resolution in the workplace.

Don’t: Ignore it and hope it goes away

The most common mistake leaders make when facing conflict is to avoid it entirely. If 2 coworkers are arguing, it can be tempting for managers to chalk it up to harmless drama. It can also feel uncomfortable to bring 2 employees into your office to air their proverbial “dirty laundry.” It’s rarely a good idea to ignore workplace conflict because it often spills over to other workers and departments.

Do: Address problems promptly

Employee conflict resolution is about immediacy. It can be tempting to wait out conflict and see if it cools off on its own, but more often than not, you’re just playing with fire. Instead of waiting for 2 workers to move on, address the issues right away. Take note of who has strife and schedule a closed-door meeting (virtually for remote employees) with each party to discuss their discord. Remember to keep things discreet to not add to the drama.

Don’t: Talk at people

Whether you’re addressing 2 disgruntled colleagues or a manager and a direct report at odds, it’s vital to utilize your active listening skills. Talking at people about their behavior may seem like the right thing to do. However, it can mean missing the root cause of their actions.

Asking open-ended questions and listening can lead to deeper understanding.

An employee who is always late and is reprimanded by their manager, for example, could be dealing with health issues they don’t feel comfortable talking to their superior about. Talking at them about punctuality for an hour isn’t going to address the issue. However, asking open-ended questions and listening can lead to deeper understanding.

Do: Listen to both sides

Active listening is making a conscious effort to hear, understand, and retain information told to you. It involves more than listening to the words someone says. It also means watching for non-verbal cues like body language.

Active listening paves the way for addressing misguided perceptions about others. It helps us understand why people feel what they feel on a deeper level. Ask open-ended questions like, “Why are you feeling frustrated today?” and listen actively to both parties to get a holistic view of the problem at hand.

Don’t: Assume you know what someone means

As the old adage goes, assuming makes an ___ out of you and me. I’ll let you fill in the blank on your own. It can be easy to think you know how someone else feels over email, text, or phone call. However, it’s not so easy. For example, some people are naturally blunt and can come across as rude and abrasive when that isn’t their intent.

Conversely, many people are friendly to a fault and appear perfectly fine when they are, in fact, enraged. You never truly know how someone feels until you ask them the right questions,  listen to them, and understand different communication styles.

Do: Understand different communication styles

Understanding different communication styles can minimize conflict by undermining assumptions about other people’s behaviors. By learning and educating workers about the different communication styles (assertive, aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive, and manipulative communication), everyone can be mindful of differences, avoid misunderstandings and minimize conflict in the workplace.

Moreover, encourage the individuals involved in a conflict to use neutral language and separate the other person from the problem. It is better to speak in “I” language instead of “you” language to avoid the other person feeling attacked. For example, “I feel like I am not respected in my job role” sounds better than “ You don’t respect me because you’re a bad manager.”

Don’t: React impulsively

Leaders may react impulsively when emotions are heightened, as they often are during tense conversations. If 2 co-workers are upset or a manager is angry, it can be all too easy to mimic their feelings. It’s essential to remain calm and neutral when resolving conflicts. The more relaxed the mediator is, the calmer the 2 parties involved in the dispute will be. Avoid making impulsive decisions and bring the energy level down a notch.

The more relaxed the mediator is, the calmer the 2 parties involved in the dispute will be.

Do: React calmly

When managing a conflict, the end goal is to resolve the issue and ensure it doesn’t resurface. Doing so requires a level of calm compassion for both sides of the problem. When you ask questions, listen, and calmly identify the source of the conflict. Take a deep breath, speak slowly and softly, and remind the parties of your role and your priorities.

Once the emotional energy is lowered, you can sit down with both parties and discuss how to meet a common goal. For example, if an employee feels slighted by another person getting a promotion, remind them of the metrics required for promotions, and show them how they can grow into a more prominent role over time. Perhaps they can collaborate with the other worker on a project to refine their skills.

Don’t: Assume the issue is resolved after the first meeting

One of the most common mistakes business leaders make during conflict resolution is to assume a conflict is resolved after 1 meeting. While addressing a problem quickly is important, following up later is just as critical. While things may seem fine after a mediation session, things can soon be derailed if one or both parties don’t hold up their end of the bargain.

For example, suppose an employee claims a manager is condescending. If that manager doesn’t take the necessary steps to improve their communication after an intervention, an employee may leave the company as a result.

Do: Check in later

Check in with the parties involved in a conflict multiple times after the incident to ensure that the issue was truly resolved. You may need to schedule additional meetings or provide training to employees. Schedule a reminder on your calendar to check in with all those involved in a conflict, so you don’t overlook it.

Sometimes conflicts cannot be solved, though. If a toxic manager is running morale into the ground, you may need to reassess their place at your company. Conversely, if an employee is always instigating drama, you should reconsider their future.

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Business leaders’ role in conflict resolution

To be human is to experience conflict. We all experience clashes in our day-to-day lives — with friends, family members, and people we work with. In the workplace, disputes may arise between 2 coworkers, between a manager and a subordinate, or between an employee and a customer. Perhaps a coworker lies and cheats to get ahead, or a manager thinks they are the smartest person in the room; no industry, company, or job role is without tension.

Disagreements at work can cause various emotions, including frustration, sadness, and anger. If left unaddressed, conflicts can sour even the best workplace culture and lead to disengagement and turnover.

Business leaders play an integral role in conflict resolution. They are often the ones mediating disputes and setting expectations. Leaders must address workplace issues with urgency to resolve conflicts versus waiting for things to “blow over.”

Leaders should actively listen to both sides of an argument versus talking to people. They should understand different communication styles instead of assuming they know how others feel. They must remain calm without reacting emotionally. Finally, leaders need to follow up to ensure issues are truly resolved.

By following these tips, business leaders will create happier workplaces where everyone feels valued, listened to, and respected.

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