How to Manage Conflict at Work
To succeed as a manager, you can't be a conflict-avoider.
Posted Apr 11, 2013
Effectively managing conflict is arguably the hardest thing a manager has to do. I was recently reminded of this by a comment from a reader in response to a post on Forbes.com (10 Things Successful Business People Aren’t Daunted By). Her observation? “I’ll be printing this off and putting it where I can read it every morning,” she wrote. “Dealing well with conflict (instead of running and hiding) has been one of my biggest challenges as a relatively new manager, so thank you for reminding me that conquering that fear of conflict is worth it!”
Actually she shouldn’t feel bad – she has lots of company. While now and then you’ll come across a manager who enjoys conflict, really relishes confrontation and dispute, the vast majority of people would much prefer not to deal with it, if given a choice.
Unfortunately, as a manager, if you’re going to do your job, you have no choice.
Looking back now over my own career I can recall conflicts with the many people I managed over just about everything: salaries, promotions, recognition, evaluations, other team members, being managed too much, not being managed enough, projects that were too tough, projects that were too boring… and once in a while someone who was just for no discernible reason downright insubordinate. I never liked conflict. But I realized early on that if I expected to be paid a reasonable amount of money for management, trying my best to deal with conflict fairly and directly was a crucial part of the job.
In that spirit, following are a few things I learned about it:
Accept the inevitability of conflict in management – As mentioned above, just recognize that addressing it is part of the job. Don’t waste energy ruminating about it, and don’t feel bad you feel bad about it. Just accept it for what it is: It comes with the managerial territory.
Don’t be a conflict-avoider - Difficult interpersonal workplace problems won’t disappear by ignoring them; they’ll only get worse. Chronic conflict-avoiders will end up losing the respect of their employees – and their own management.
Stay calm – Even when provoked, keep a close hold on your temper; stay as calm as you possibly can. There are some memorable lines from the famous Rudyard Kipling poem If: If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/But make allowance for their doubting too… And after several verses the poem concludes: Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/And – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son. (Or a woman… Kipling wrote this in 1895.) Though it wasn’t written for business, I always felt there was management relevance in the message.
Maintain the moral high ground – A close cousin to the point directly above. You’re management. You’re the voice of reason. Don’t lose control or pull rank or cede the moral high ground – calm control is a much more advantageous position manage and negotiate from.
Partner with HR - Though Human Resources operatives have become joking stereotypes on TV and in movies… I’ll state this in bold letters: When I was in management, my colleagues in Human Resources were of inestimable valuable to me on many occasions. I never hesitated to call on them when I faced difficult employee conflicts. They were unfailingly an objective third party, a sounding board, a valuable source of reasonable counsel. My philosophy was always, In delicate situations, get all the help you can.
Document meticulously – When serious conflict occurs, as a manager you’ll need accurate records of it. During employee performance appraisals, you’ll need clear documentation to avoid discussions dissolving into “he said/she said” disputes. And when it’s necessary to terminate someone, you of course need detailed documentation (again, a time to work closely with HR) or you may well have legal exposure.
Don’t’ think in terms of “winning,” so much as constructively resolving – No point winning the battle but losing the war. Management‘s role is not to “defeat the enemy” (even though that may feel cathartic at times!), but to elicit optimal performance from the area you’re managing. Accordingly, best not to leave bodies in your wake but to get conflicts resolved fairly, expeditiously, and move forward as constructively as you can. Get closure and move ahead… the sooner, the better.
I don’t want to give the illusion any of this is easy.
It isn’t. It never is.
But if you can develop a consistent, rational approach to managing conflict, it can make your difficult job a lot less stressful than it would be without it.
This article appeared first at Forbes.com.
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Victor is the author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall Press).
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