Resolving Workplace Conflict: It’s Easier Than You Think!

Conflict 1One of the most challenging aspects of being a leader is resolving conflict in the workplace while exercising emotional intelligence and sensitivity toward all parties involved.  That can be a Herculean task in the heat of the moment, but knowing that there are some tried-and-true rules of engagement to effectively resolve conflict to with a “win-win” outcome should set your mind at ease.

Rules of Engagement

Susan Steinbrecher, licensed conflict mediator, executive coach and CEO of Steinbrecher and Associates, identifies two fundamental needs in any conflict resolution dialog – the practical need and the ego need.

Practical Need:  Very simply, this relates to the purpose of the discussion and what are you trying to resolve.  When people are in conflict, it can be difficult to “hear” what the other person is saying.  Consequently, it’s critical to balance corrective or potentially negative comments with at least three positive remarks.  In this way, they’ll “hear” the corrective remark you’re making.

Ego Need:  We all have a need to feel valued, respected, cared about, appreciated, listened to, and empathized with – especially in a conflict situation.  The problem is that most people want to just ‘cut to the chase’ and tackle the issue at hand, without putting the human dimension first.  In reality, the only way that you’ll get the practical need met and arrive at a solution is to satisfy the ego need first – that is the gateway. If you’re not showing respect and empathy; if you’re not showing your employee that you value him by telling him the things that he’s doing well, you’ll never arrive at a satisfactory solution.

In order to effectively address both the ego need and the practical need, you’ll need to follow the ‘three golden rules of engagement’, which are:

1.  Listen and respond with empathy.

2.  Be involved

3.  Maintain and affirm self-esteem.; ask for the other person’s opinions, ideas and thoughts.

According to Steinbrecher, It all comes down to compliance versus commitment.  If you adhere to the three golden rules of engagement, the person involved in the discussion or conflict resolution will be far more committed to the outcome if they feel empowered, and not diminished by, the process.

Six Steps to Effectively Resolving Conflict

1.  Discuss the situation in a respectful, direct matter: Don’t assume that your employee knows why you want to speak with him, and be sure you’re meeting that ego need and peppering your dialog with the 3:1 complimentary-to-corrective statement ratio.

For example, “Jamie, I really appreciate your willingness to meet with me today and taking time out of your busy schedule; thank you.  I’d like to speak with you today about that fact that I’ve noticed that you were late by at least 30 minutes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday of last week.  You’re so reliable and are a valuable part of our team, so I just wanted to talk to you and see what is going on.”

You may be thinking, “That’s warm and fuzzy, but it’s not my style and I just cut to the chase and state the problem”.  The reality is that Jamie isn’t going to “hear” you if he feels as though his back is up against the wall.  He won’t trust that you’re willing to work through the problem unless you show him that you care about him and value him – as an employee and as a person.  The more you can calm him in the beginning and hold that ‘space’ all the way through the process, the better.

2.  Be Specific.  If you say, “I noticed that on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday you were 30 minutes late,” Jamie realizes that you are well aware of the situation and that he must address the issue.

Conflict 33.  Discuss How a Problem/Behavior Impacts You, Staff, Clients, and/or a Project:  “Jamie, you’re such a value-added member of the team; when you’re late, it really creates an impact.  It causes some of your colleagues to work overtime to cover a part of your shift.”

4.  Talk about the Specific Cause(s) of the Problem: Don’t assume you know why Jamie is late; ask him directly.  “Jamie, I’d appreciate your help with this.  Can you please share with me why you were late three times last week?” Listen to what Jamie has to say.  Regardless of what he says, this is an opportunity to show that you’re listening and empathizing.  You don’t have to agree with him; you can state, “I can appreciate why that’s difficult for you; I realize that you also have a night job to make ends meet and that you’re trying to get to work on time and I know that can be challenging.”

5. Ask for a Specific Solution: Once you’ve heard Jamie’s reason for being late, the next step is to ask, “Jamie, what would be the things that you can put into place to make sure that you’re reporting to work on time?” Or similarly, “Jamie, what would work for you that would help you to get to work on time?”

One problem that many managers have is that they place the burden of responsibility for identifying a solution on themselves, rather than on the individual exhibiting the problematic behavior.  This is Jamie’s issue – you want to support him, while also holding him accountable for his behavior and the consequences.  Don’t tell Jamie how to fix his problem – you may get compliance, but you won’t get commitment.  You’re looking for a genuine commitment from Jamie to resolve the issue – if he comes up with a solution, he then “owns” it.

6.   Agree on Specific Action to be taken and Follow Up: Don’t assume that you’ve communicated clearly or that you’ve understood each other completely – you need to summarize and confirm what you’ve agreed upon in your action plan.  “So, Jamie, you’ve agreed to purchase a second alarm clock, and I also heard that you were going to get up 30 minutes earlier, get organized the evening before, and take a more direct route to work in the morning.  Did I understand that correctly?”  This is an opportunity to verify information, summarize what you’ve discussed, and ensure that you’ve understood it correctly.  This is very important, because if Jamie doesn’t do what he committed to doing because of a miscommunication during this last step, you’re likely going to be very frustrated.

Finally, follow-up with a ‘check-in date’, and keep it positive!  “Jamie, thank you for your time today; I really appreciate you brainstorming this issue with me.  I feel like you’ve come up with excellent solutions.  Let’s touch base in a week from today at 3:00 p.m., does that work for you?  Thank you again for your time; I’m looking forward to our follow-up.”

When you tell Jamie you’re going to follow up, he knows he’s being held accountable.  You have a date and time in place to either thank Jamie for his improved performance or, if his performance hasn’t improved, to have a second conversation to say, “I know we came up with this course of action in our previous conversation, and that doesn’t appear to be working; what do you think will work?”

I would recommend that you document each of the six elements in writing; I prefer a memorandum format.  It’s also a good practice to ask Jamie to sign and date a copy of the memorandum, and to give him a copy for his personal records.  The original signed document should be maintained in Jamie’s employee records, for purposes of subsequent formal evaluation, and in the event that litigation arises from a conflict situation.  If you’ve followed the ‘golden rules of engagement’ and the six steps outlined here, that’s not likely to happen. Nevertheless, it’s always prudent to anticipate every possible outcome and do your due diligence.  You can be respectful, empathetic, positive, and effective at conflict resolution while still protecting yourself and the interests of your organization.

Conflict 4Don’t fear – or worse, avoid – conflict situations.  If you anticipate that your conversation will be difficult, try scripting it out in advance or even role-playing the scenario with a friend.  Whatever you do, don’t show your anger, frustration, or disappointment in your employee – that only lowers self-esteem and forces him to feel as though he must defend himself.   If you follow these six straight-forward steps, your employee will walk away feeling motivated to change his performance, while also feeling respected and valued.

There’s the win-win! 

Good luck.  If you’ve had an experience in resolving conflict in the workplace, please consider sharing your thoughts; I would enjoy hearing from you.

Cheryl M. McCormick, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Ascend Nonprofit Consulting and Executive Coaching,


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