How and When to Manage Conflict

How and When to Manage Conflict

While coworkers of varied backgrounds certainly can and do work together, it's inevitable that at some point a manager will see conflict between employees. Knowing when to step in and take charge before things escalate from a minor issue to a major problem can be key to finding resolution. Get advice from managers like you on how to get involved at the right time.

Be Prepared to Manage Conflict

Kyle Krzmarzick, branch manager of Technisource, an IT and engineering staffing and project solutions company, says managers should be prepared for conflict at some point -- no matter how well-run an organization is or how happy its employees are.

"In a competitive environment filled with competitive coworkers, people don't always see eye-to eye," says Krzmarzick. "Although (your employees) don't need to be friends with everyone in your office, we all know there is a business to run and a job to do."

Krzmarzick says there is nothing wrong with holding your coworkers accountable and challenging them to work out problems themselves. "I will generally allow people to work out conflicts and disagreements on their own, in private," he says. "This eliminates the ‘tattletale' and ‘he said-she said.' If it gets hurtful or is done in front of others, I'd step in."

When Should You Get Involved?

The decision of when -- and if -- to get involved in coworker conflict is crucial. Stepping in too early can cause conflict to escalate, because the employees may have considered it a nonissue. Stepping in too late can be, well, too late. The damage is done, and the two sides may not be able to work cohesively again. Even worse, the employees may leave the company.

A manager should get involved the minute he sees the conflict compromising the team's productivity, integrity and morale says Pamela Holland, author of Help! Was That a Career Limiting Move? and chief operating officer for Brody Communications, which develops and delivers communication skills courses for Fortune 500 technology, pharmaceutical and financial organizations.

Paula Rue, a 15-year veteran of human resources management who is currently vice president and senior career coach with career management and development company Career Services International, agrees. "If the (employees) confide in you and ask for your advice, it would be appropriate to step in," she adds. "It may be their way of asking for help without asking directly."

How to Manage Conflict

When conflict inevitably develops, the manager should initiate a discussion with the parties involved. But watch your approach. "Most often, things like this should be done behind closed doors, not in front of others in the office, and never behind someone's back," Krzmarzick says. "I would either mediate the discussion altogether or ask the discussion to take place in private. If the two people can't resolve it behind closed doors, I'll help resolve it."

If you're involved in the meeting, Holland says managers should bring the employees together to:

  • Discuss how their behavior toward one another is impacting the group in specific terms.

  • Explain how the manager is willing to support both parties in resolving the issue.

  • Facilitate a productive discussion that surfaces the issues or factors underlying the conflict.

When you do see conflict, step back and try to visualize the process leading up to the problem. Ask why this may have developed, and be as objective as possible. "Look at the behaviors involved -- try not to immerse yourself in the personalities or fall prey to your own personal biases," advises Holland.

Managers themselves should be a model for direct, immediate, diplomatic and open communication. If employees see you taking a sniping, passive/aggressive or bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach in conflict with others, they are more likely to follow suit when dealing with their own conflicts.

Finally, don't be afraid to ask for help. "Managers should seek out the advice of one or two selected peers whom they both admire and trust," says Holland. "Getting someone with an outside perspective to weigh in or to contribute observations not made by the manager can be extremely beneficial."