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8 Ways Great Managers Handle Employee Conflict

Workplace discord affects everyone. While every business will have its share of employees who don’t get along, if the culture of civility morphs into a culture of toxicity, productivity suffers. That means profitability suffers, too.
Conflict on the job can’t be avoided, but it can be managed. And the skills required to appropriately manage a difficult conversation or interaction can be learned. Here are eight ways that great managers demonstrate “conflict competence” when it’s time to have those unpleasant conversations and crucial confrontations with employees.

1) Maintain an open-door policy

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) states that an open-door policy is the first step in managing workplace conflict. “It encourages employees to meet with their immediate supervisor to discuss and resolve work-related issues. Employees should know that there will be no negative repercussions for voicing a complaint.”

2) Encourage employees to manage their own conflicts

Strong leaders give employees the chance to resolve interpersonal issues privately first. This instills confidence in employees that they can handle issues. It also communicates an implied expectation that they will try. Managers should follow up, however, to make sure the problem has been solved to the satisfaction of everyone involved.

3) Cultivate self-awareness

Leaders should be aware of their own physical and emotional reactions to situations involving conflict. Managers who are familiar with their own triggers, biases and blind spots are better able to identify the actual problem that exists between employees. In a 2013 study titled “Conflict Management: Difficult Conversations with Difficult People,” the most common responses on approaching conflict are listed as:

  • Avoiding, or silence: Actively deciding not to engage or deal with the problem.
  • Accommodating, or yielding: A conflict is resolved, but an individual’s needs aren’t met. If an individual is consistently accommodating, resentment may affect the relationship.
  • Competing: Being forceful, uncooperative, and assertive in the situation.
  • Compromising: A negotiation between two parties with equivalent power.
  • Collaborating: Focused on finding a solution where all parties involved have their needs met.

4) Know when to address a conflict

The decision to step in and confront a problem between employees “involves balancing the reward against the price of addressing the issue; that balance is unique to each circumstance.” Great managers know the difference between avoiding confrontation due to their own reticence to get involved versus making a deliberate and thoughtful decision to wait for the right time.

“The best time to take action is when there is hard evidence/proof that an employee has a track record of wrongdoing that is negatively impacting the performance of others,” suggests Glenn Llopis in Forbes. “If everyone around you knows it must be dealt with and you are still waiting to act, you are losing the respect of your peers and those you lead. Leadership is about taking action and confronting the issues before it’s too late.”

5) Create a safe environment

Mutual respect and purpose are key components of setting a safe environment in which to work through conflicts. All participants must believe they will be respected and treated fairly. They also need to know that any information shared will be kept confidential. The conversation must be held in a private, preferably neutral, setting with enough time reserved for the discussion.

6) Actively listen from a place of empathy and understanding

“At ACU, we teach that the goal of listening is understanding rather than agreement,” says Dr. Kipi Fleming, Conflict Management and Resolution Program Director. “This is truly a paradigm shift and has the potential to completely change the way we engage with one another. When my purpose is only to show you why I’m right and you’re wrong, I never truly hear you. I’m just waiting for a chance to get my point across; however, if my purpose is to understand you, I’ve moved beyond the surface and am truly interested in you as a fellow human being. This doesn’t mean that you’re right and I’m wrong or that I must change my beliefs or my opinion about whatever subject we’re discussing. It simply means that I acknowledge that there is another perspective besides my own.”

Giving each employee a chance to tell his or her side of the story is a basic principle of mediation. There might be some intense emotions involved, but letting the participants air their grievances and perceptions is part of getting to a resolution. Strong managers know how to listen for behavior patterns beneath the emotional reactions to get to the crux of the matter. Fluency in reading body language is also helpful. It adds another layer of information the manager can use to determine the real cause of the disharmony. Asking open-ended questions, repeating back what is said, and using “I” statements are all part of creating an emotionally safe environment to ensure everyone’s on the same page.

7) Keep the focus on the behavior, not the employee

During conflict resolution, never focus your words on the person, advises Adrienne Isakovic, a lecturer for Northeastern University’s Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communication program. “A person can choose to behave in any way they wish, even if it’s not reflective of their personal beliefs or attitudes,” Isakovic says. “Don’t enter a discussion calling into question the employee’s values or beliefs.”

Instead of saying, “Your behavior in today’s meeting was unacceptable,” say, “The behavior in today’s meeting was unacceptable.” In this way, your focus is on the unacceptable behavior, not on the employee responsible for that behavior.

8) Lead by example

SHRM notes that one of the best ways to create a positive workplace climate and minimize conflict is through effective management. “Conflicts have a better chance of being managed quickly and successfully when an organization has a strong leadership team in place. Leaders that allow poor behavior from employees or ignore workplace bullies will certainly experience damaged employee relations. An effective management team is imperative in preventing slippage in employee morale and increases in turnover.”

In her piece for Insperity on managing employees who don’t get along, Megan Moran writes: “Building a culture of engaged employees, who respect each other and work well together, is a top-down proposition. By speaking to your employees in an honest and respectful manner, you create an environment that fosters integrity and communication. When you’re open and honest, employees are more likely to follow suit.”

A SHRM survey found that 72% of employees rank “respectful treatment of all employees at all levels” as the top factor in job satisfaction. That’s quite powerful when you realize the desire to be respected trumps the desire for higher pay, more vacation or better health benefits.

Do you feel called to a career in conflict resolution? Learn more about our Master of Arts in Conflict Management & Resolution program. We also offer a number of conflict management and resolution certificates structured for specific professional contexts, including for educators, healthcare professionals and church leaders. Give us a call at 855-219-7330 or visit

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