It’s inevitable that in any gathering of people, disagreements and disputes in business will arise, and there is likely to be a clash of personalities. The larger the group, the more frequent these will occur and more people it may involve. Nowhere is this truer than in the world of business, in which personalities can be larger than life and the conflicts of interest manifold.

As team leaders, managers and supervisors need to be able to manage conflict when it arises. Whether it’s the more preferential yet doomed method of preventing such conflicts from arising in the first place, or the less desirable but more realistic task of diffusing them, it’s a required and invaluable skillset to have.

The challenge is ensuring that interventions in conflicts within the workplace are both reasonable and fair, requiring a great deal of diplomacy, empathy, and more than a little resolve.

It also comes with the recognition that, sometimes, you can’t please everyone.

Conflict management for beginners

The biggest hurdle to overcome in conflict management is the ability to take a step back and objectively self-examine oneself. It requires introspection, honesty, and realistic expectations not just of others but also yourself. Many small businesses and companies are ill-equipped to handle conflict, and one of the main blocks is a lack of self-awareness.

To paraphrase some ancient advice about conflict, knowing the problem is only half the battle. True success only comes when you know yourself as well.

This means knowing what kind of leader you are, where your strengths lie, and crucially where you struggle. Also, it’s important to employ these abilities to bring tense situations under control but also adapting accordingly where they may not work. This isn’t easy to learn, but once mastered it makes conflict management all the easier.

 

Knowing the problem is only half the battle. True success only comes when you know yourself as well.

Many conflicts have been allowed to simmer, fester, and grow like mold because management would rather pretend it isn’t there. They wish to maintain a false image of a harmonious working environment where everyone is everyone’s friend. The issues behind growing disagreements are swept under the carpet and covered with happy facades, and all the while the taproot of the problem is left uncut. Eventually short of disappearing, the conflict explodes with even worse ferocity than it started with, potentially with irreversible damage.

Out of sight is not out of mind.

Key conflict management strategies

Understanding the discipline comes with understanding the key areas of approach, and the best ways budding disputes between co-workers can be identified and successfully mediated. A lot of it is art rather than science, but as with all disciplines the more you use it the more intuitive it becomes. Here are some of the basic strategies used by companies.

  1. Identify and acknowledge the problem. Again, many companies find themselves with angry schisms among their staff because they failed to recognize that a problem was emerging or did see the signs but hoped they could be ignored. Get out of this habit and be willing to call a duck a duck and a problem a problem.
  2. The problem will rarely resolve itself, and it’s safer to assume they never do. Further, the longer you choose to ignore a problem everyone can see, the more you undermine your own authority. Your team look to you for leadership. If you don’t provide it when it’s needed, you reduce your standing in their eyes. Make sure you keep a close eye on your team’s behavior and learn to identify tell-tale signs that a conflict has emerged. Be observant! Sometimes it’s subtle details. Sometimes uncomfortable silences are just as revealing as loud arguments.
  3. Remember you’re a team leader, not ruler. The word “boss” and “sir” have fallen out of working place parlance for precisely this reason. When conflict arises, you can’t make diktats and expect the crisis to be solved. If anything, it may just fan the flames. Consider all the views and opinions of the involved parties and give them all an equal and fair hearing before making any decisions. Disputes are rarely black and white, and you’ll often find blame and innocence is shared to varying proportions. Everyone is important, and everyone has the right to be heard. Avoid completely having favorites—even the shiniest apple can hide a worm.

Once you create a feeling of trust, you’ll find people will naturally gravitate toward you. This allows them to be more open and transparent and allows you to better ensure that everyone can achieve their full potential in the company.

  1. Be transparent. Following on from above, make sure people know you’re accessible and there to help when they need it. Keep an open-door policy, encourage people to come talk to you if they’re troubled and involve them in your decision making. Encourage feedback about the business’s working environment and your leadership. Another key area for transparency is personal conduct. Ensure everyone knows what is and what isn’t acceptable behavior and communication, and make sure they have a say in what’s included. Most conflicts are usually caused by miscommunication, so having a standardized guideline can help prevent problems before they even occur.
  2. Know when to be firm. As well as knowing when to intervene, you must also know when to put your foot down. No-one enjoys the nasty aspects of people management that involves dressing downs, but sometimes all a conflict needs to be resolved is for someone to say, “this stops right now”.
  3. Try to keep things as balanced and impartial as possible. Where you can, encourage compromise and reconciliation. Avoid involving more people in it than necessary – if you can isolate it to one or two people, talk to them in private away from the rest of the team. But never be afraid to recognize when reasoning is no longer enough and that you must remind people that they’re supposed to be adults in a professional environment. Use punishments only as a last resort.

 

Here’s what you’ve got to remember

Conflicts should never be viewed as isolated occurrences, but rather as opportunities to improve the corporate culture of the business. Whenever a conflict is resolved, don’t just proceed as though nothing happened. Use it as an exercise in examining how the company works, how people interact with each other, and how your leadership is guiding the team.

Colleagues can also develop an invaluable opportunity to learn things about themselves and each other. As such, while conflict should certainly be managed it need not only be negative. Sometimes from the ashes of past tension, the green shoots of new personal, interpersonal and professional growth can emerge.

Always take the opportunity to reflect on the day-to-day interactions of your team, both the harmonious and the discordant. There may be a chance to glean a new and beneficial direction to take the business in the future.

Learn to thrive in times of constant change with a pioneering MBA or business masters from Hult International Business School.