Conflict in the workplace happens for a variety of reasons: Poor decision-making processes, lack of clarity, ineffective communication and hundreds of other reasons. Many leaders view conflict as problematic, but conflict is not the problem, mismanagement is.
Mismanagement occurs when leaders avoid, appease, or resort to aggression. Here are some common problems and some methods of effectively managing the conflict.
Skipping chain of command
When you lead a project, but a team member goes around your back trying to influence others before a vote or a decision, unnecessary conflict erupts. Trust and transparency start to erode. Members unintentionally engage in gossip and hearsay, furthering the conflict.
This doesn’t happen only on the front line. I’ve seen board members, investors and C-suite individuals skipping due process (gathering their troops) to state their disagreement instead of bringing the issue to the group or project manager. This indicates a lack of conflict capacity and an urge to get things done by undermining instead of addressing.
What to do: Define the decision-making process. If you are being undermined because a colleague, board member or employee is going around your back to influence others, there’s a process to alignment. First talk with your superior about what you need. It goes like this:
“Jason, I’ve noticed that some of the team members are coming to you complaining about an issue on the table. What I need from you is to invite them to bring concerns to the meeting in front of the group, or to first bring it directly to me so I can put it on the agenda.”
Chances are, Jason didn’t realize he was part of the problem by engaging those who didn’t follow chain of command. Next, talk directly to the person avoiding you. It goes like this:
“Kim, I understand you have some different ideas about our approach. We have a due process in place and what would benefit the team is XYZ.”
In short, ask for what you want, but make sure you have support from those above and around you who are unintentionally adding to the confusion.
When a leader becomes suddenly insecure and keeps seeking reassurance, it’s usually because of some change, such as being promoted, merging companies or getting a new boss. As a result, they keep coming to their superior for advice they “should already know.”
Many senior-level people have said to me, “They want me to micromanage them” or “They just want a checklist of rules when I need them to make the decision and trust themselves.”
Here’s some questions to ask yourself:
- Have they gone from a more tactical job to one that requires more strategic thinking?
- Have they gone from getting work done to getting work done through others, or vice versa?
What to do: Stop telling and start coaching. To help an insecure leader become secure in their decision-making, stop telling them what to do. This is done through coaching. Use more questions than answers. “What would you do?” or “Walk me through how you’re thinking about it” is much better than criticizing them for their insecurities or telling them exactly what to do. The next time your leader comes to you with “What should I do?” don’t tell them. Instead, say, “I want you to make decision and before implementing, make the case and let me hear your decision-making process.”
It won’t take long before they transform from seeking parental approval to confidently making aligned decisions.
A big complaint I hear is “The top performer a bully, but their performance is stellar.” The real problem here is that behavior is not considered a part of performance, so it’s justified instead of corrected. The behavior allowed then becomes the standard.
What to do: Make the unconscious conscious. You can’t fix what you can’t articulate. If you can’t describe the dysfunctional behavior, you won’t be able to coach behavioral change.
Suppose Victoria, your senior vice president of design, continues to disagree and interrupt at team-meetings when she should be listening and brainstorming with the group. You know you need to speak with her, but you feel trepidation.
Before having a conversation use this template to answer a couple of questions.
- What is the person doing that shouldn’t be done?
- How does that affect our culture, teamwork, productivity or results?
Once you answer those two questions, you can then use observable behavior to bring the unconscious to light. An example:
“Victoria, I noticed that you interrupted Robert three times at the meeting yesterday. After that no one spoke up. When you interrupt before hearing others’ opinions, it is disruptive to teamwork and engagement.”
Part of a leader’s job is to manage and resolve conflict. The first step is to stop avoiding. The second step is to start building the conflict capacity to drive results, not drama.
Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley, 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion, 2015) and the forthcoming book From Conflict to Courage (Berrett- Koehler, 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn or at her website.