A few years ago I helped the managing partner to address conflict between two of his partners of a town planning business. There was a lack of communication, and potentially a lack of respect and professionalism being demonstrated. One partner was overworked while the other was going to golf each Friday. The conflict was causing a high amount of dysfunction between the two people, which was having wide and varied impacts across the business. The managing partner was reluctant to get involved but eventually did express his concerns to the two partners and asked them to sort themselves out. That was not working.
Conflict between employees is inevitable. Each person has different values, life experiences and attitudes. At some point people are going to disagree with each other. The way the disagreement is expressed and how the disagreement is handled are the variables. Some people are excellent at being able to eloquently and appropriately express their disagreement while still maintaining a positive relationship and negotiating a satisfactory outcome for themselves and the other person. However, many, if not most, people do not have the skills to manage disagreements that will result in conflict. They need help.
If conflict is not managed effectively in the workplace it will escalate. As a business leader, an important part of your job will be to help manage any conflict within your team that has escalated. You will need to hone your conflict resolution skills to expert levels to be build a great business and team.
Some of the key steps I use to resolve conflict are as follows.
1. Listen to understand
Meet with each person on their own to understand what their issues are. Ask about and listen to their story about how the conflict started and how it has escalated. Talk to them about what they have done to manage the conflict. Discuss how they think the conflict could be resolved.
Importantly, ask questions and listen to the response. Really listen. Most often it is something more emotional. Get to the core of the problem.
2. Meet to discuss the key issues
Organise a meeting of yourself and the two people in a neutral and confidential environment.
Facilitate a meeting to raise the key issues and reach an acceptable outcome. Key steps of the meeting should include:
- Agree on the key problems that need to be addressed.
- Ask each party to give their perspective around the three key problems.
- Allocate time for each person to speak and ensure that the other person listens carefully and does not interrupt.
- Allow opportunity for questions of each other.
- Seek to find common ground in what is being said.
- Based on what has been said, identify and proposed solutions to each of the key problems.
- Be very clear on what the agreed solutions are between the parties.
- Document the solutions for each so sign.
- Agree on a review period.
3. Hold follow-up review meetings
Post the meeting and after each person has had time to digest what happened, meet with each of them. Check how they’re feeling most the meeting and how satisfied they are with the agreed solutions.
Most importantly, keep them accountable to the agreed solutions and each you follow through on the review. And not just one review, continue to have review meetings with both people to ensure they conflict is fully resolved and all remedial action is carried out.
In the case of the town planning firm, I carried out a process similar to the above between the two partners who were in conflict. There was a documented agreement on actions moving forward, which helped settled the conflict. A more proactive (earlier) response to the conflict would have lessened the impact on employees and customers. However, after another year or so, they decided to part ways due to their different professional and life goals.
Conflict is inevitable. Conflict is difficult to manage but with this clear 3-step conflict resolution process to follow it will help you achieve the best possible outcome.
- Listen to understand the problems.
- Explore and agree solutions for the problems.
- Review how both people are feeling post the conflict resolution meeting.
You, as the business leader, need to be the ultimate conflict resolution expert in your business.
Written by Claire Harrison, Author of The CEO Secret Guide to Managing and Motivating Employees, and Managing Director of Harrison Human Resources.