How Leaders Create The Right Environment To Resolve Team Conflicts

Leader managing workplace conflict

How can we resolve conflicts in the workplace? That was the focus of the interview I did with National Post columnist Steve Cunningham as part of his company’s series of interviews with thought leaders and experts from various industries and disciplines.

Over the course of our conversation, I shared with Steve a number of actionable steps employees can take to resolve conflicts they might have with their colleagues or team mates. At one point, though, we also touched briefly on what leaders can do to help address conflicts that can adversely impact team progress and cohesion.

Although it’s important for employees to understand how to manage and resolve conflicts for themselves, there are measures that leaders can take in order to provide the kind of guidance and environment that will ensure that conflicts don’t impair their team’s ability to collaborate and communicate effectively.

With this in mind, here are four steps that leaders should take to create an environment where employees can successfully resolve conflicts in the workplace:

1. Remind employees that conflict is only negative if we tear each other down
When it comes to conflict, there’s a understandable tendency to view it negatively in large part due to our past experiences where we might have lost influence or authority, felt disrespected, or not heard by the other party.

However, there’s another reason behind this tendency to view conflict negatively that has to do with how our brains operate. Neuroscience has shown that our brain processes information as either a threat or a benefit, with a stronger focus directed to those things we define as a threat. As a survival mechanism, it makes sense for our brains to focus more on things we perceive as a threat to our well-being.

Unfortunately, this mechanism becomes problematic when it surfaces in non-life-threatening situations where we might feel that our position or status is threatened, as is often the case in workplace conflicts.

What’s more, studies have shown that what we think about a given situation is affected by how that situation makes us feel. In fact, how much attention our brain gives to a particular event or circumstance is influenced by the emotional context we create around that event. In light of these findings, it becomes easier to see why so many of us view conflicts negatively and why some of us try to avoid them at all costs.

However, leaders can help their employees to overcome these negative perceptions by reminding them to use conflicts to attack the issue and not the other person. This will help to reduce the neurological threat response in your employees because they’ll understand that it’s not their position or authority that’s being challenged, but the issue or idea the team collectively has to face.

Helping your employees to shift their perception towards viewing conflicts as an opportunity to discover hidden gaps in their understanding is a critical first step to ensuring that conflicts are viewed and treated as a healthy and natural part of working within a team.

2. Foster an environment that encourages an understanding of different viewpoints
When a conflict arises within your team, it can be tempting to use your leadership position to try and control the situation so as to expedite a fast resolution in order to get your team back on track. Although well-intentioned, this can have a disastrous effect on your team as it prevents them from learning how to manage for themselves those situations where divergent positions or opinions about an issue or situation arise.

Indeed, most conflicts are a result of an unwillingness to listen to others, which as we saw in the first point can often be fuelled by our brain’s drive to protect us from perceived threats, not to mention the emotional investment our mind creates in these situations.

As such, what you need to do is use your leadership role to model for your employees how to attentively listen to others in order to clarify their understanding of the opposing viewpoints being shared by their team mates.

Such efforts will allow your employees to feel validated by one another as their focus won’t simply be on protecting their position, but on valuing and respecting those colleagues who might have a different perspective or understanding from theirs.

3. Communicate to your team that conflict resolution is not a win/lose scenario
Successful negotiators know that the key to resolving conflicts is not through attempting to get the other party to accept your position as the right one, as this only serves to put the other person on the defensive.

And naturally, when this happens, it’s harder for either side to actually appreciate the other party’s perspective because we’re too busy digging our heels into the sand.

Of course, as I mentioned in the first point, a big challenge to this is overcoming our brain’s tendency to see conflicts as threats and consequently, putting our focus on efforts to protect our position.That’s why the best negotiators understand that the key to resolving any conflict is approaching the dialogue with the intent of learning more about what the other party’s objections/position are.

In the case of your employees, what’s required is encouraging them to approach the conversation with an open mind, resisting the tendency to make assumptions about what the other side is objecting to, which can lead them to jump to the wrong conclusions about what’s truly needed to resolve this situation.

Communicating this point to your employees will allow them to become more aware of the needs and concerns that their colleagues have and in particular, how their position or idea impacts them.

Gaining this greater clarity and awareness of the other party will make it easier for them to not simply evaluate the situation from their perspective and instead work collaboratively to find a mutually-agreeable solution.

4. Once the conflict is resolved, help your team to move forward
Even after a conflict is resolved, it’s easy for us to focus on our feelings of being hurt or disappointed, especially if we don’t feel like we’ve truly resolved the situation to our satisfaction. Once again, this is partly due to how our brain functions as neuroscience has shown that it takes three positive events for us to overcome the impact of a single negative one.

This is the moment when leaders are needed the most so they can help their employees to not get mired down in the negativity we often associate with conflict.

It’s important that you remind your employees that once they arrive at an agreed solution, moving forward will help them to demonstrate their integrity in seeking to find the best solution to the current issue, instead of trying to protect their own self-interests.

This will also foster a culture of trust within your team and organization as you’re helping them to look past themselves in order to understand the needs and concerns of those they work with and how they can ensure that they are being addressed in any measures going forward.

Given the numerous studies indicating both low levels of trust and employee engagement in today’s workplaces, the ability of leaders to not only help, but model the actions and behaviours that will facilitate a successful resolution in team conflicts is one that certainly requires more attention and development.

By employing the four steps described above, leaders can not only help their employees to address conflicts in a productive fashion, but to do so in a manner that allows their employees to bring back their focus to how they can continue to contribute in a manner that benefits both their organization and themselves.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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