Ever sat through a meeting where tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife? Or did you have to deal with a project delay because two team leaders just can't see eye to eye? You know then that unresolved conflict isn't just uncomfortable — it's bad for business.
Unresolved conflict can lead to missed deadlines, lower productivity and high employee turnover — all of which directly impact your business's success and financial health. So, how do you ensure that conflicts are managed effectively before they drain your resources and morale?
This article is your practical guide to teaching leaders how to resolve conflicts. We'll explain why it's a skill no leader should be without and easy actionable steps to get there.
Why Conflicts Arise in Business Settings
According to a survey by Acas, nearly 486,000 employees quit each year due to conflict, costing businesses in the UK around £14.9 billion annually in recruitment and lost output. Conflicts in the workplace usually stem from common issues. Understanding these is the first step to learning about conflict resolution.
Another 2022 Conflict at Work global research report by Myers-Briggs Co. found the top three causes of conflicts to be poor communication, lack of role clarity, and heavy workloads.
Here are the most common causes of workplace conflicts:
- Different goals: Sometimes teams or individuals have goals that clash. For example, the marketing team might be pushing for more customer engagement, while the tech team is focused on product development. These differing priorities can cause friction if not properly aligned.
- Poor communication: Lack of clear communication often leads to misunderstandings. If Team A doesn't know what Team B is doing, or why, that's a recipe for conflict.
- Resource scarcity: Whether it's limited budget, manpower, or time, scarcity can make people territorial. You might find departments competing for the same internal resources, causing tension.
- Personality clashes: Not everyone will get along, and that's okay. But when strong personalities clash, it can disrupt the whole team dynamic.
- Unclear roles and responsibilities: When people don't know what's expected of them, they may end up stepping on someone else's toes. It's like having two chefs in a kitchen who both think they're in charge of the main course.
- Change management: Anytime there's a big change — like a merger, layoffs, or even a shift in company strategy — people get anxious. And when people are anxious, conflict is more likely to occur.
- Cultural differences: In a diverse workplace, cultural misunderstandings can arise. It's not just about nationality; it can also be about corporate culture or even departmental "mini-cultures."
Strategies for Developing Conflict Resolution Skills in Leaders
Now that you know the skills your leaders need to be able to resolve conflicts, here are some practical steps for helping them develop those skills.
1. Specialized Training and Workshops
Start by identifying the areas where your leaders could improve. Is it negotiation, empathetic communication, or decision-making? Once you have these areas pinned down, you can then bring in external experts to introduce proven models and techniques.
For example, a workshop could teach the "Interest-Based Relational Approach," where leaders learn to separate people from the problem and focus on mutual interests rather than entrenched positions.
During the workshops, encourage your leaders to engage in the activities and discussions. These settings often include breakout sessions where they can practice new techniques in small groups, making the learning experience interactive and dynamic.
2. Role Play and Simulations
The idea is to mimic the complexities and emotional stakes of a workplace dispute, allowing your leaders to apply the skills they've learned in a more theoretical setting.
Start by crafting scenarios that mirror common conflicts your business encounters. Whether it's a disagreement between departments over resources, or tension arising from missed deadlines, make it as relevant as possible. You could even invite team members to suggest scenarios based on their own experiences.
Once you have your scenarios, assign roles to the participants. Facilitators or observers can provide instant feedback, noting both the positive conflict resolution strategies employed and areas for improvement.
3. Mentorship Programs
Consider pairing your less experienced leaders with seasoned professionals who've been around the block a few times. These mentors serve as guides, sharing their own experiences, and offering advice.
Mentoring can be done informally, such as through monthly check-ins or office hours. Or it can have a more formal structure, with set goals and objectives. Mentors can also encourage their mentees to shadow them during meetings where conflicts are likely to arise.
This gives your newer leaders a front-row seat to effective conflict resolution in action. Seeing how a mentor handles heated discussions or negotiates solutions can be an invaluable learning experience.
4. Peer Feedback Sessions
These are planned events where leaders can come together to share their experiences, victories, and challenges, especially in the arena of conflict resolution.
Here's why they work:
- Open discussion: Leaders can openly discuss conflicts they've handled or are currently facing.
- Constructive criticism: The group offers constructive feedback after hearing each case. This allows the leader in question to understand how he or she might have approached the situation differently. It's like having multiple advisors all at once.
- Learning from others: Sometimes, just listening to someone else's experience can offer fresh perspectives and solutions you hadn't considered before.
- Accountability: Knowing they will discuss these issues with peers motivates leaders to handle conflicts more responsibly.
5. Emotional Intelligence Training
Emotional intelligence is all about understanding and managing your own emotions, and being able to read and influence the emotions of others. Here's how it can help resolve conflicts:
- Self-awareness: Leaders are taught to recognize their own emotional triggers and responses. For example, if a leader tends to get defensive when criticized, recognizing this can help them respond more thoughtfully in heated situations.
- Empathy: The ability to understand and share the feelings of others is critical. Leaders learn to put themselves in the shoes of the conflicting parties to better understand their perspectives. This makes it easier to find a middle ground.
- Communication skills: Training often includes exercises on communicating emotions clearly and effectively, without causing further misunderstanding. Being transparent about one's feelings can often defuse a lot of tension.
- Emotional control: Leaders practice techniques to maintain or regain composure in stressful situations. This can be as simple as taking deep breaths, counting to ten, or taking a brief walk to clear the mind.
6. Mediation Training
Mediation training equips leaders with the skills to act as impartial facilitators in conflicts, steering the conversation in a way that promotes resolution. A leader trained in mediation isn't just a referee; they are a guide who helps conflicting parties reach a mutual understanding.
A survey by Acas found that 74% of respondents who took part in some form of workplace mediation agreed that their conflict had been fully or largely resolved.
Here's how it typically works:
- Neutral ground: The mediator establishes a neutral setting where everyone feels safe to express their thoughts without judgment. This may involve setting some ground rules for the conversation.
- Active listening: Leaders learn the art of active listening, which means not just hearing but understanding and interpreting what is being said. This aids in pinpointing the actual issues at hand.
- Problem-solving techniques: Mediators use various tools to help conflicting parties think beyond their emotions and focus on actionable solutions. This could involve reframing the problem or brainstorming solutions.
- Facilitating conversation: Mediators guide the dialogue, helping parties express themselves while keeping the conversation constructive. This is where the leader might say something like, "I hear both of you have concerns about meeting the project deadline. What can we collectively do to ensure we meet it?"
Building Strong Leaders Through Conflict Resolution
While conflict is inevitable, having the right tools and strategies can help your leaders manage it successfully. From role-playing to emotional intelligence training, equip them with the knowledge they need to become masterful mediators who always bring out the best in people. With practice and guidance, your team will soon be able to handle conflict with confidence and grace.