When Yahoo named Marissa Mayer as its new president and CEO in 2012, many people, including industry experts, thought she would turn the struggling company around. Instead, her tenure only lasted five years. One of the most significant factors leading to her downfall was the conflict she generated at Yahoo. For example, Mayer ended a work-from-home program that many employees loved. Her micromanaging tactics left team members with frayed nerves. Talented workers left for greener pastures. By the time of her resignation in 2017, tensions in the company were high, conflict was common, and Yahoo saw little success as a result.
The story of Marissa Mayer shows that when there’s conflict in the workplace, businesses struggle. Conflict leads to an unsustainable and even toxic work environment. According to a CPP Global Inc. report, U.S.-based employees become involved in conflict almost three hours every week. This results in a loss of productivity and a higher likelihood of employees quitting. The report also shows that 60 percent of employees received no conflict management training to help them deal with the issues they may encounter.
As a leader, you need to be ready to manage workplace conflict, sometimes at the drop of a hat. Some of the most successful companies in the world (GM, Google, Apple) make strides in bringing their teams together, not tearing them apart. You can follow their example with conflict management skills designed to ease friction. As you do so, you’ll turn your team into an impactful one.
In this article, learn more about:
- What conflict management is.
- The difference between conflict management styles.
- And the conflict resolution skills you need to promote a positive team culture and environment where people enjoy working.
What is Conflict Management?
Conflict management is the practice and skill set that allows managers to identify, prevent, minimize, and eliminate conflict in the workplace. Excellent leadership skills in conflict management creates beneficial business outcomes because it treats all parties involved with respect and fairness. When leaders undertake conflict management correctly, everyone feels valued and understood no matter the “side” they’re on.
Understanding the 5 Conflict Management Styles
Just like leadership styles, there are several conflict management styles. It’s important to note that no single style works for every situation. For this reason, you must learn to be flexible and use the appropriate style depending on the situation. In this way, you practice Situational Leadership®. Learn more about each conflict management style and when to use it below.
The accommodating style is perhaps the most straightforward. This style lets the person get their way with little to no pushback. Be accommodating when the issue is of little importance. This helps keep the peace when it’s something not worth fighting over. Do not be accommodating when the issue at the heart of the conflict is significant or can’t be ignored.
Example: An accommodating style would mean allowing David to eat a snack at his desk, even when no one else does. It’s a small matter that shouldn’t affect performance, so it should be fine to let it go in this case.
When two (or more) sides can’t outright “win” an argument, you often need to use the compromising style. Compromising doesn’t mean abandoning your principles, but it does show a willingness to find a solution all parties feel comfortable with. Using the compromising style is a great strategy when you need to reach a solution in a limited amount of time. Being compromising doesn’t always work for every conflict since no one gets all they want.
Example: If two employees each want to spend increased revenue on their respective departments, splitting that revenue equally between the two can act as an effective compromise. Both sides get a little of what they want, keeping everyone mostly happy.
Many people use the avoiding style as a way to evade workplace conflict. To protect themselves, they engage in behavior that avoids arguments, like changing the subject, not answering questions, or putting off the issue for another time.
When done inappropriately, avoidance can make conflicts worse. Only use this tactic to give both parties perspective on the issue. If neither side is seeking perspective, it will be ineffective.
Example: If Sam and Angela get into a heated argument over the company’s latest marketing strategy, pushing the deadline back a few days may help them cool down and reevaluate. The extra time may help them get a little perspective and not let their emotions drive their decisions.
The competing conflict management style is the opposite of accommodating and compromising. This style means not backing down in the slightest. You want to “win” the argument and won’t accept anything less than complete victory. The obvious downside to this is that it shuts down any discussion. As such, this style should only be used sparingly and for the most critical issues. When competing, leaders will defend their values and principles, not budging one inch in the face of opposition.
Example: If Stanley wants the company to sacrifice customer service for a better bottom line, shutting him down and refusing to consider it would be an example of the competing conflict management style. High-quality customer service is one value company leaders shouldn’t budge on.
As one of the most effective conflict management styles, collaborating gets everyone working together to find a resolution. Because everyone comes up with the solution as a team, no one feels like they lost something in the process. This strategy also helps a team grow together and build upon their relationships. While collaborating works well for long-term positive outcomes, it may not be the best approach when you have a tight deadline since it can take a lot of time. However, team members tend to prefer this management style when they have the time.
Example: Your team designs a new product that they worked together on by combining their ideas and creating something that everyone contributes to. The collaboration takes everyone’s strengths and uses them to produce a greater outcome than they could achieve individually.
5 Conflict Management Skills That Drive Impact
Conflict management skills represent the strategies leaders use to minimize and resolve conflict. While many leaders understand the need for conflict management, these skills are how they can pull it off effectively. Mastering conflict management skills can take time and persistent practice. But with enough effort, it can transform places into positive work environments and build strong teams.
Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.Bernard Baruch
To understand all sides of a conflict, you need to listen. When you fail to listen, you show everyone involved that you assume you know what is right. However, it really means that you are basing a decision on incomplete information.
Not listening makes other people feel small and worthless. It also shows a lack of emotional intelligence in the workplace. With this in mind, improving your listening skills should be a priority.
When managing conflict, take the time to hear all sides of an argument, including the side of a party that is not directly involved. This third part can provide a more objective point of view, free of emotionally charged thoughts. Act as the peacemaker as you seek everyone’s opinion. Above all, when you listen, search for the truth behind the matter.
2. Identifying Patterns Behind the Conflict
There are some people who always seem angry and continuously look for conflict. Walk away from these people. The battle they’re fighting isn’t with you, it’s with themselves.Rashida Rowe
If you find conflicts happening time and time again, chances are, some underlying issues are the main culprit. This holds true in professional as well as personal settings.
When constant conflicts rear their ugly heads, look for the patterns behind them. Start your search by asking the following questions:
- When was the last time this conflict occurred?
- What conditions caused it?
- Who was involved in the conflict?
- What did the parties say or do during the argument?
Asking these questions reveals specific patterns that create conflict. Only once you’ve identified these patterns will you be able to address them and make any necessary changes.
For example, during the course of the year, you might notice that some projects do well while others get bogged down as team members descend into squabbles. Upon closer examination, you discover that the projects that do poorly always have the same two people on the team. As it turns out, these two employees don’t get along, and their arguments end up bringing the whole team down. Once you’ve seen the pattern, you now know where to direct your attention.
3. Finding What Triggers Conflict
10 percent of conflict is due to the difference in opinion and 90 percent is due to the delivery and tone of voice.Unknown
Just because you recognize patterns doesn’t mean you’ve found the main cause of the conflict. Knowing the patterns will help you in your search to find what triggers those patterns. In other words, you need to find what made the conflict happen in the first place.
Going back to the previous example, why don’t those two employees get along? Does one of them constantly question the other’s authority? Are they on opposite sides of the political spectrum and can’t look past that when doing their work? Do they get annoyed with each other’s quirks and mannerisms?
As a leader, you need to get to the bottom of what emotional triggers set people off. Every employee is different, which means everyone will have a different trigger. For conflicts that keep happening, you need to find the source if you want it to stop.
It’s important to note that you shouldn’t push the trigger. For example, if you have a sales manager who gets defensive and hostile when confronted with negative feedback, you may need to reevaluate the types of feedback you provide. You also need to get to the heart of the problem, which requires honest and open communication and a firm desire to discover the truth.
4. Talking It Out
The aim of argument and of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.Joseph Joubert
Knowing the heart of a problem allows you to have an honest discussion about it with the affected parties. If your sales manager has trouble taking criticism, it might be because he lacks self-confidence. For instance, maybe he was laid off from his previous job and believes any negative feedback is an indication he’s getting fired. Sitting down to talk with him can help clear up any misunderstandings and develop a better system that works for everyone.
If multiple people are involved in a conflict, you should first speak with each person individually to get their point of view. Encourage them to speak openly without fear of recrimination. Then get everyone in the room together so you can discuss the problem, share insight on why it happened, and provide a solution.
Brené Brown talks about this process in Dare to Lead. She calls these talks a rumble—“a discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving, to take a break and circle back when necessary, to be fearless in owning our parts . . . to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard.” In a rumble, you can put your communication skills to use as you work with others to find a solution to the conflict.
5. Setting Boundaries
There are two ways of meeting difficulties: You alter the difficulties or you alter yourself meeting them.Phyllis Bottome
As you resolve the conflict, you have to make sure everyone understands the new standards. This happens in several steps.
- Explain the new rules of behavior.
- Provide boundaries they shouldn’t cross.
- Outline new expectations.
- Give them examples of what your expectations are in practice.
If two people don’t get along, a new rule of behavior would be respecting each other’s skills and authority when working together. A possible boundary might be not talking about non-work-related topics. Your established expectations might be having them perform well and no longer arguing. You can then provide examples of good performances free of conflict.
You don’t have to be the only one who sets boundaries. Encourage coworkers to set boundaries of their own. This is especially important if you are causing the conflict. For example, if you are driving an employee to constantly miss deadlines by assigning them to projects at the last minute, you must be willing to change your behavior. The only way people will be comfortable setting boundaries is by fostering open communication so they know they can safely share their feelings. Without this encouragement, resentment may fester over time.
A Quick Note About Serious Conflict
Some conflicts may require extra help beyond having an open discussion. Human resources should be brought in when conflicts involve harassment, discrimination, or illegal and unethical activities. Don’t hesitate to address such issues, as they can ruin lives and destroy reputations.
Manage Conflict With a Humble Heart and Mind
At the core of conflict management must be the principles of servant leadership. Conflicts worsen when people become too concerned with being “right” or when they connect their identity with beliefs that make them unable to listen to others. However, servant leaders manage conflicts by showing humility. They look for answers because they believe they don’t have all of them.
As you practice conflict management, be humble enough to say to yourself, “I don’t know, but I’d love to hear what you think.” Be prepared to teach others to do the same. When you’re a servant leader, you truly care about your team and want the conflict resolved so everyone is happy.
Humble leadership also helps you build strong relationships within your team. A close team can disagree and have honest conversations that lead to better productivity. They value each other and want to resolve conflicts themselves because they care for one another.
One of the most important things you can do is teach conflict management styles and skills to your team right now. Doing so will minimize conflict at every level of the company because everyone will have the tools to handle conflict whenever it arises.