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Can your managers manage … conflict?

Conflict is inevitable. If you don’t believe that, take a look at the news headlines, or cast your mind back to your last family reunion. Alongside our undeniable capacity for greatness, as a species we can also be petty, vindictive, small-minded, and most of all, unforgiving of those who disagree with us.

If that all sounds rather bleak then take comfort in the fact that conflict can also be the engine that drives a truly creative and thriving business.

What is conflict?

A definition always helps. How about this one?

Conflict is…

...a difference in needs, values, attitudes, views, beliefs, or opinions.

So, given that any business thrives on new ideas, those differences are potentially useful so long as a) they’re relevant to the business, and b) they’re managed positively.

On the other hand – and this is the health warning – if those differences just simmer beneath the surface or are brought out into the open air clumsily, they can become entrenched, a source of resentment, contribute to poor teamwork, lower productivity, higher sick absence and a divided them and us culture. So, it’s important to tackle conflict well.

The basics

First of all, it’s worth mentioning that for those who find such things useful, a previous blog post outlined a nifty conflict management model based on research carried out by Thomas and Kilmann in the 1970s, which examined different types of conflict and different strategies for dealing with it.

But let’s stick to the basics…

Channelling workforce conflict into a positive force often comes down to supervisors and first line managers. Why? Because they have the most contact with the majority of employees and tend to be in the best position to spot the signs early, before differences of opinion become entrenched and battle lines are drawn.

Essentially, the manager’s role comes down to:

  • Pay attention, listen to your co-workers.
  • Spot conflict early.
  • Consider the potential benefits to the business (e.g. a disagreement over how to provide a service, or respond to a complaint, etc. might be fertile ground).
  • If a benefit potentially exists, open it up for discussion - not necessarily there and then, though; pick your moment.
  • Guide that discussion, facilitate a positive exchange of views.

With that last point in mind, here’s a simple technique that will help:

  1. Introduce the subject - Identify what’s up for discussion and why. Don’t over-explain or give your own opinion on the matter, that will just stifle the conversation. But do be clear about the goal: to explore whether there’s anything here that might benefit the business and team.
  2. Pass the subject to the group - Invite everyone to voice their opinion, contribute facts and information, and so on. The goal here is to ensure that everyone present has their say. Your role is to keep them on-topic, and to keep the discussion respectful. Do ask for additional explanations where necessary – the more everyone understands each other’s opinion, the more positive and productive the discussion will be.
  3. Summarise - Every now and then, summarise the views and rationales that have been expressed. The goal here is to ensure that everyone is on the same page and listening to and understanding each other, rather than just getting wrapped up in their own viewpoint. (A pause to summarise also acts as a neutral control mechanism if the debate starts getting a bit heated!).
  4. Gain agreement - When it seems all the views are out there, guide the discussion towards a conclusion. This might involve some more summarising, but then the key question is, what next? Have any potentially useful ideas been thrown out? Are they worth testing in practice? If so, what’s the first step in doing so? Keep it positive, respectful and if necessary (for example, there may be differences of opinion over what should happen next) go back to step #1 and use this process to work it through.
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