Conflict Management: How Leaders Can Defuse Workplace Conflict

Beth Miller |

Conflict is going to be a part of your work life. And it’s not always a bad thing. Still, the most effective leaders are able to defuse conflict when it arises, so that work continues to get done.

Healthy conflict means that people are sharing diverse ideas and points of view (as I point out in my article about how leaders can make team conflict positive) but if problems aren’t addressed, the tension will build and turn into negative energy.

Leaders spend at least 25 percent of their time resolving conflicts, according to Reynolds and Kalish. If you’re likely to be spending one-fourth of your time on something, it’s a good idea to learn more about it and increase your skills in that area.

Yes, you must confront the problem

Many leaders will ignore problems and conflicts with the hopes that they will simply disappear. But this strategy can actually escalate the problem further.

Leaders have a responsibility to help their employees be as productive and engaged as possible. If problems aren’t confronted then passive aggression, arguing, further conflict, and sometimes, fighting and abuse will occur.

Seven steps to defusing workplace conflict 

Follow these steps once you realize a problem exists to help you manage through the conflict:

  1. Address the issue with all parties involved. Call a meeting to define the facts, not emotions, of the situation.
  2. Listen to both sides. Allow both sides to hear one another speak from their own point of view focusing on facts and behaviors, not personalities.
  3. Find common ground between the sides. Ask both people what works about their relationship. Discuss the positive aspects of their interactions.
  4. Encourage compromise. Ask both parties what they are willing to change or commit to in order to resolve the problem.
  5. Confront negative feelings. If feelings and thoughts aren’t worked out fully, the problem may go away for a while but may reappear.
  6. Define what changes need to occur. List specific actions that must be taken and the supporting goals with specific time frames. Take notes  and document the conflict as well as resolution plan.
  7. Schedule a follow-up meeting in a couple weeks. Make any adjustments to the plan.

Tips for defusing workplace conflict between others

Here are some tips to consider to defuse conflict at your company in addition to the seven step model above.

  • Emphasize the need to resolve conflict to all your employees. Make sure people understand why conflict needs to be addressed and not ignored.
  • Be positive and create a positive work environment. Resolve to address future conflicts in a positive manner. Research shows a link between a positive mood about work, generated by a supportive leadership and management culture, and high level performance.
  • Break the tension between the people in conflict. Do something out of character or use humor to lighten the tension. This won’t solve the problem but can help people begin to work together toward a solution.
  • Adhere to your company policy. Your handbook won’t address every possible issue, but it will discuss ways to deal with common problems.

Tips for defusing workplace conflict when you are part of the conflict

When you face conflict, follow these tips to diffuse the situation:

As a coach, I always recommend using “I feel” when presenting your conflict with the other person.  No one can respond that your feelings are wrong, because they are yours and yours only.  Also using “I” versus “you” prevents the other person from feeling attacked and becoming defensive.

The following tips come from George Doc Thompson, who was an academic-turned-cop and best-selling author who spoke about how tactical language allows leaders to achieve their goals.

  • Be calm under verbal abuse.
  • Deflect insults and attacks. Say something like, “I can see you’re upset but…”
  • Don’t show people that they are getting to you. The moment you get angry, you lose your center.
  • Make the issue the central concern; keep yourself out of it.
  • Don’t mention the negative. See the good and mention it.
  • Empathy absorbs tension. Show you understand the other person.
  • Paraphrase the other person. Say “Let me see if I understand you…”

What techniques do you have to add that have helped you in defusing workplace conflict?

Photo Credit: Flickr user o5com

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Beth Miller

Beth Miller

Beth Armknecht Miller’s passion for learning, and dedication to helping others, are strands woven throughout her distinguished career, which continue to guide her work with Executive Velocity, a top talent and leadership development advisory firm. As a trusted executive consultant, Vistage Chair, and committed volunteer, Beth holds herself to a rigorous standard of excellence, and she encourages her clients to do the same when pursuing their goals.

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