6 Ways Real Leaders Tackle Workplace Disputes


The ability manage conflict in a healthy and productive way is one quality that separates good leaders from bad ones. Too many leaders shy away from any conflict, while other leaders sometimes seem to cause conflict just to have conflict in the workplace. Having a firm grasp on the following skills will help you successfully manage conflict and disputes in the workplace.

1. Understand the Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Conflict

Some conflict spurs creativity, builds comradery, and solves problems; other conflict breeds resentment and frustration and eventually creates a toxic work environment. Knowing that Millennials, in particular, are very willing to change jobs repeatedly in order to work with fulfilling people, toxic environments can make businesses struggle.

If the conflict is keeping all team members from sharing their viewpoints, shutting down discussions, or if absenteeism or illnesses are beginning to climb, consider how much unhealthy conflict is occurring in the workplace.

2. Define Acceptable Behavior Early And Often

To keep workplace disputes civil and productive, leaders should communicate their expectations for conflict resolution early and often. Don’t assume that people will just “be polite” or “figure it out.” Workers come from a wide variety of cultures, who all have different rules for interpersonal interactions. Assuming that people will just overcome these differences leads to misunderstanding and frustrations.

Set guidelines for how employees will behave during a conflict and make sure everyone plays by the same rules, even management. For example, don’t just make rules like “all viewpoints must be shared respectfully,” without defining respectfully (no interrupting, no personal comments, focus on how to improve this instead of how this will fail).

3. Facilitate Communication

Part of your job is to make sure that communication is happening. If you realize that two (or more!) of your team members are struggling to see each other’s point of view, part of your leadership responsibility is helping them resolve the disconnect.

Sit the team members down and find out what the problem is. Work with them to find solutions. Enforce rules like “I” statements (I feel frustrated instead of You’re being a jerk) and avoiding black and white statements (On Tuesday, this happened instead of You always do this/you never do this). Again, this means that leaders need to have good conflict management skills, and know how to moderate conversations.

4. Be Factual Rather Than Emotional

As a leader, it’s important for you to model positive communication and workplace dispute resolution. Focus on keeping your communication factual instead of emotionally charged. Examples of factual communication:

  • Instead of I hate it when you do this say When you missed a deadline, the team was impacted and delayed.
  • Instead of You don’t care about anyone but yourself say When you are regularly late and miss meetings, the team feels disrespected.
  • Instead of You never get your work done say On three days last week, these projects were left incomplete, which had this consequence.

By focusing on facts that are impossible to dispute, you can help keep your team member from going on the defensive, which can lead to better conversation. You may be able to identify factors which are keeping people from getting their work done, instead of just making them angry and causing them to shut down.

5. Respect Differences; Ask “Does This Matter?”

Sometimes you find yourself having workplace disputes over very small things. Maybe someone never starts a new pot of coffee when they take the last cup, or an employee communicates in a very different way from other team members without being actively offensive. You can coach that employee as appropriate, but as a team leader, you need to decide if this issue is worth potentially causing tension and upset on your team.

If the issue isn’t worth going through a conflict resolution process, then let it go. If it is worth it, because it’s causing disruption, team frustration, or irritation, then go through it effectively and healthfully. Don’t allow unhealthy situations to fester and get worse over time.

6. Be Clear About Value For Others

One way to get people to do what you want is to point out how what you want them to do has value for them. You need to show them “What’s in it for me”? Going into conflict resolution with a statement about how this will help the person will make everything easier. For example, you could point out that:

  • Changing their process will be easier and simpler, once they complete training on the new process.
  • The new process offers benefits to other departments, which will decrease frustration they would otherwise need to deal with.
  • If they can’t begin to find a solution to the conflict, they may face disciplinary action.

By getting better at conflict resolution with team members, leaders become more effective at their jobs. They create better, more positive work environments which attract the best employees.


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