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Embracing conflict: a first time manager’s guide
Here’s the bad news: leadership and conflict often go together and some form of conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. Now here’s the good news: you can address conflict in a healthy and productive way, and the way you deal with conflict as a leader will help you to earn the respect of your team and peers at work.
There are a few ways conflict can arise in the workplace: between team members, across different teams and between yourself and an employee. The rules of engagement are simple: recognise conflict, understand the nature of the conflict and bring a swift resolution to the conflict. Feigning ignorance to the situation normally escalates the problem and causes further issues to manifest. As a manager, you’ll need to understand how to minimise conflict, and how to deal with any tensions should they emerge.
Lines of feedback
The foundation of a good team is effective communication. Your team wants to hear from you, and wants to be heard. Feedback not only helps your team grow, but helps you absorb different viewpoints and develop in your role. According to a workplace report by Gallup, only 23% of employees strongly agree that their manager provides them with meaningful feedback.
One early key is clarity and consistency. Make sure you’re as direct and specific as possible. Every person on your team has their own context, so they may interpret what you’re saying differently which leads to communication breakdown and conflicts to arise. As a manager, you need to work on creating a shared vision that’s supported by facts, and then convey this vision in a way where every single person on your team understands it and takes ownership for their part. This is harder than it sounds, so be patient.
Communication is also a two-way street. You need to be open and available, so your team feels comfortable seeking advice when they are facing a problem. When you share information, be prepared to receive feedback, including some that’s not so positive. The key is patience, but firmness. Create a safe space for people to give feedback, and share opinions without censure or ridicule. Equally, creating a culture of problem-solving and resilience will discourage excessive drama.
Developing a listening relationship requires being eager to understand where your team members are at. One way to ensure everyone gets heard that you is to hold regular one-on-one sessions. These should not only help you keep an honest watch on priorities and metrics – but they can also help you address questions before they become misunderstandings.
Accountability and conflict
Communication without a call to action becomes tedious. Instead, record promises made by your team – and include yourself on that list. These tangible to-dos will help keep everyone accountable, and ensure that you too are on the hook. Ideally, it also reduces empty promises.
Ensure you give adequate freedom to do the work, rather than micro-managing every step of the way. Equally, avoid brushing over too many cases of work left undone according to the plan. This gives your team a greater sense of ownership and responsibility and draws a line in the sand that your team commits to not crossing.
And when that line gets crossed? Conflict happens at work daily, and dealing with it can be a manager’s hardest task: handled effectively, you’ll avoid disrupting the momentum for the team, and you as a manager. How you handle and resolve conflict will be a true test of your leadership, address the conflict head-on before it becomes disruptive.
This can be challenging and tricky for first-time managers but there are some way to prevent that from happening. Ideally, consult fellow managers, and follow the team protocol. In cases where it was isolated, a small chat may suffice. Then in more extreme cases, you will need to act. Do so in an isolated space, ideally together with a fellow manager. Once done, speak with the team, and ensure that things move on quickly. Most importantly, no matter how heated things get, your feedback should never get personal.
Talk it out
Many managers avoid tension by insisting harmony. This can just dampen down existing issues, and leaves people feeling marginalised. A good manager sees signs of conflict before it gets serious: takes the person aside, then gives specific feedback, explaining both sides. Usually if people are given the chance to cool down and think about their actions, the situation will be minimised. So ideally be direct but calm: confront issues in an empathetic way, and give your team member the chance to stitch it up themselves in a mature way.
Having a talk is a big part of helping your team members grow, and understand their limitations and boundaries. Let your team know when they cross the line – but that you support them. Through careful observation, identifying behaviours that are triggers, and even role-playing better responses, your team will grow self-awareness, and respect you for taking the time. Consistent coaching will help to establish standards that prevents further conflicts from arising.
Conflict is bound to find you whether you look for it, and waiting for it to pass you by is not the most effective methodology for solving the problem at hand. Recognising that conflict rarely solves itself and that it needs to be addressed head-on is one of the key lessons that new managers need to learn in order to become more successful in their role. For more first-time manager lessons, read our previous post on leadership skills to hone.