In episode #101, Ann Lewis recalls a story in her career when an employee was showing up drunk and harassing other employees. Ann reported the issue to HR, only to later learn that HR was unwilling to deal with the conflict, choosing instead to ignore the problem. This example, while hopefully unusual and rare, demonstrates why it’s essential that managers become comfortable addressing conflict. Avoiding conflict erodes trust on a team. Navigating conflict well builds trust, creates psychological safety, and helps foster a work environment where everyone thrives.
Tell Tale Signs You’re Avoiding Conflict
First, what does conflict avoidance look like in the workplace? Here are some common behaviors that are telltale signs you are avoiding conflict:
- Changing the subject during a controversial discussion
- Avoiding having a discussion with an employee – or avoiding the employee altogether
- When given the opportunity, you don’t bring up the subject of contention
- You talk to everyone else about the conflict except the person directly involved in the conflict
- You see a problem or problematic behavior and ignore it
To me, ignoring problematic behavior is one of the most destructive choices a manager can make. If you’re not addressing the behavior, you’re allowing it. Most likely, the behavior is impacting the remainder of your team, but they may be too afraid to tell you. Imagine if one of your employees constantly lashed out at other employees in a condescending manner. They may write emails that talk down to their teammates. On several occasions they became openly hostile when someone directly challenges their ideas. As a manager, it may be tempting to ignore this behavior. But, avoiding conflict erodes trust. Your team’s focus easily shifts to discussing the behavior and why it’s allowed to persist, thereby eroding your team’s productivity. Before you know it, you’ve created a toxic team!
How to Navigate Conflict Well
No one sets out in their career to be a toxic team creator. It happens over time when conflict isn’t resolved. So, how do you move from being a conflict avoider to someone who is comfortable facing conflict head on? Fortunately, this is a skill that can be practiced and improved over time; learning from mistakes you make along the way. Here’s how I approach it.
1. Schedule a Time to Discuss
First: I schedule a time to discuss the conflict with the individual. Once I recognize a behavior that needs addressing, I must confront it. Avoiding conflict erodes trust. Ideally, I’d address the behavior immediately after it occurred. Alternatively, doing this at a scheduled time, in a neutral place without outside observers, can make for a more productive discussion. Never address the behavior in a public forum.
What happens if you find yourself getting angry in the heat of the moment? Then, ask to take a break. If this happens to me, I will often schedule a new time to regroup with the other person so we both have time to cool off. This can be hard to do. Especially when tempers are flaring.
If the other person is getting heated, I will ask them to step away for a few minutes. I let them know I am ready to talk when they have composed themselves. Allowing people to step away and clear their head can help de-escalate a difficult discussion. Asking them to come back when they are composed, lets them know I am open to continue the conversation. It also sets a clear behavior expectation that I need the person composed in order to continue the discussion. If the conversation gets heated again, schedule a follow up meeting the next day.
2. Come Prepared
Step 2: Get prepared. I like to prepare by writing in a work journal or notebook. I ask these types of questions:
- What is the conflict really about, from my perspective?
- How am I feeling about the conflict? What biases might I have based on my feelings?
- What is the conflict really about, from the other person’s perspective?
- How do I think they are feeling? What biases might they be bringing to the conflict?
- What specific behaviors can I identify that need to be addressed? Give specific examples.
I recommend taking the time to actually write the answers down. It might seem silly, but writing the answer down helps me process the problem more clearly than just going over it in my mind. I find I ruminate on the problem less when I write it down. Additionally, it allows me to revisit my thoughts and edit as necessary, before I meet with the person.
3. Start with Listening
Step 3: Listen first, talk second.
A good question I use to start the conversation: What happened?
I ask it. Then, I really listen to what they’re saying. I follow it with: Tell me more.
Once I’ve listened to their perspective, I will walk the person through the specific examples I identified while preparing for the discussion. In the condescending employee example above, I would note the specific language that came across as condescending. Then, I would help the employee re-craft the communication in a way that promotes psychological safety for the whole team.
4. Find a Path Forward – Together
Finally: I explore alternative paths forward with the other person. After addressing the conflict, hopefully I am in a place where we can explore options for moving forward. It’s important to do this together. I like to start by asking the employee what ideas they have for how we can move forward. This creates some ownership and an expectation that they are an active participant in resolving the issue. Keep an open mind here. There is often more than one acceptable option that will bring about the same result. I like to use the phrase ‘Yes, and we might also consider…’ It validates the employees idea and allows you to offer additional advice without being overbearing.
Once we have agreed on a path forward, follow it up with action. Then, set a date to check back in. I keep my part of our agreement and ensure the employee is keeping their part of the bargain, too.
Addressing conflict at work is rarely easy, but it can be rewarding. With practice, you will soon find that you won’t be avoiding conflict any longer. You may even like managing conflict. Your reward comes when you’ve created a safe place for your team to work and you watch them thrive!
What methods have you found effective for facing conflict? Leave a comment below with your experience.
Until next time,
Resources to get you started:
- Ann Lewis Medium.com article: How to Build a Software Engineering Culture Where Everyone Can Thrive
- Crucial Conversations Book – excellent advice on having difficult conversations
- Forbes Article: Are You Killing Your Career by Avoiding Conflict
- Kwame Christian’s Tedx Talk: Finding Confidence in Conflict
We’d love to hear from you!
If you’d like to share a story or have a question you’d like answered on becoming a great manager, reach out to me here.