How do I manage conflict between employees? What should I do when coworkers don't get along?
In 20 years of teaching and coaching, I have seen managers and leaders struggle most with these questions. Why? Because conflict among coworkers saps time and energy and limits creativity, not to mention keeping managers up at night.
I see otherwise skilled and technically savvy managers and chief executives wondering what to do. Should I intervene? Bring them together? Work individually? What do I say?
It's not an easy decision. If you intervene unskillfully, you can exacerbate the problem. If you avoid confronting the issue, it will probably remain unresolved, get worse and negatively affect the work environment. Good people may leave due to stress. Jobs don't get done effectively, because coworkers won't talk to each other. Relationships and output suffer. Entire organizations become polarized.
The good news? While not always intuitive, the skills and competencies to resolve organizational conflict do exist and can be learned.
5 Competencies for Managing Conflict Between Co-Workers
In the next 6 Ki Moments blog posts, I will address the following 5 leadership competencies in depth. For now, and for those eager to begin, I will say a few words about each.
These competencies apply across organizational strata and will help you address conflict at the executive level, with middle and upper management, and on employee teams.
Your attitude toward what's happening makes all the difference. If you think it will go badly or well, you're right. Reframe the conflict for yourself and your employees as an opportunity to learn, grow, and for things to change for the better.
Are the parties willing to change? Or do they prefer to believe that everything would be fine if only their colleague or coworker weren't so difficult? If they're not willing to engage in a process of conflict resolution, it will be more difficult. Your first job will be to help them find their motivation. I'll have more to say on this in an upcoming post.
It's usually unhelpful to bring both parties together at the beginning, especially if the conflict is entrenched. Instead, set aside time to meet with each for one or more sessions.
- Readiness to see and acknowledge the other person's point of view.
- Capacity to manage and direct emotional energy purposefully.
- Ability to listen for understanding.
- Desire to transform an opponent into a partner for problem-solving.
When you bring them together in one or more joint meetings, begin by building rapport, including small talk, common interests, goals and work habits.
As you discuss areas of conflict, ask the parties to guess and acknowledge what they imagine is the other's point of view. Ask questions to stimulate further conversation about values, wisdom gained from this process, and what a sustainable resolution might look like.
In today’s workplace where time is so important and none of us have enough of it, you may wonder why this “to-do” should rise to the top of your priority list, and how you'll find the time. Ask yourself:
- Is conflict among coworkers costing you time and energy?
- Do you find yourself waking up nights wondering what to do?
- Is the tension affecting others?
- Does the conflict limit the team’s ability to accomplish goals?
I've found it takes more time not to resolve conflict.
Save Time By Addressing the Conflict
Learning to intervene in organizational conflict will save you and your team time, aggravation, and money as you focus on what you do best.
For me it's a privilege to help conflicting parties come to new understanding. I watch with awe as two people learn to (re)discover each other, gain new awareness, remove barriers, soften, and change to become more of who they are, not less. It’s an exciting vantage point. And it could be yours.
In the next five issues of Ki Moments, as you practice the skills, attitudes, and behaviors you want for yourself and your staff, this important aspect of your job will become easier and more satisfying. In the process, you'll increase your own leadership presence and power to manage whatever may come.