Just like every other employee, each leader handles conflict differently. Some will shut themselves in their office and say “handle it yourselves,” while others will dive into the action and see what they can do to help find a solution and ultimately, create a more productive team. When an employee has a grievance, a leader can look at it as a dangerous fire they need to extinguish before it spreads, or he can see the situation as a growing opportunity for their company as a whole. Ultimately, your reaction will decide the outcome of the specific issue but also shape the culture as well.
The Restaurant Scenario
To master conflict resolution, it is important for leaders to understand how people react to problematic situations. We can learn a lot about our employees in terms of conflict resolution with the “The Restaurant Scenario.”
You go to a bistro and after weighing all your options on the menu, you order the filet mignon medium-rare. And then the waitress sets down the plate in front of you and it’s a sirloin that’s medium-well. What happens next?
There are some people, conflict resolvers, that would kindly explain to the waitress that the sirloin was not what they ordered in a calm, collected manner and request the correct order. Others, conflict escalators, typically overreact and shout at the waitress and even call the manager over to the table to complain. The third category is conflict avoiders, who prefer to sit quietly and eat something they did not order, sulk and grumble about it during the whole dinner, but smile and say that everything is fine when the waitress checks up on them. For the next few days, they will tell their friends and family about the terrible experience they had and likely post a one-star review online.
Whether there is a problem between coworkers or an issue about how you manage as a leader, the above “reaction categories” are similar to how people handle conflict scenarios at the office. Leaders need to be aware of and sensitive to how their employees handle disputes, operational concerns, and overall problems in the workplace.
1. Conflict Resolvers. Just like at the restaurant, conflict resolvers will approach a situation with a clear, calm approach and communication. These employees typically find resolutions quickly and may prove themselves useful by speaking up about various issues and concerns in the office. Even if they have a problem with another employee, they are likely to be as civil as possible.
2. Conflict Escalators. These folks let their emotions take control of the situation. They believe that by approaching their superiors or coworkers aggressively and at times with hostility they will get results — but they show a lack of professionalism, and as a result, they may not achieve their goal and in some cases, stunt their career growth. Most leaders see these angry employees as the most annoying and problematic group, but that isn’t the case at all. It is the next group that is the biggest concern.
3. Conflict Avoiders. This group, who tend to be passive-aggressive in nature, typically smile and say “everything is fine” when they have a long list of complaints and are the most troublesome for leaders for several reasons. First, when people who have issues are not complaining, passive, uninvolved leaders will simply assume everything is fine. Meanwhile, the worker’s unhappiness is stewing and compounding when they share these stories with their co-workers. Second, you never know when they will blow up. Either they create substantial disfunction in the group, or they decide they are fed up and simply quit. These outcomes are preventable, and it is the leader’s responsibility to identify and address these issues before they get out of control.The Power of Approachability
As you can see, of all the above categories, conflict resolvers handle these situations best, but they are typically the smallest group within the company. How do you create an environment and encourage everyone to be a conflict resolver? It starts with you presenting yourself as an approachable and fair leader. Before there are even problems, establish that you are a person your team can talk to in an open, respectful tone instead of being someone to fear.
I have spoken with many leaders about managing conflict, and some are simply uncomfortable to get involved until it reaches a level of severity where it cannot be avoided. But just like treating a medical issue, the sooner you deal with a problem, the quicker it can be resolved and the number of options are greater.
Of course, conflicts arise in the course of business regardless of your level of engagement. Great leaders are not conflict escalators but rather confict resolvers for the sake of their team.
For some, resolving conflicts is often seen as one of the worst and most difficult parts of a leaders job. To me, that is where you can achieve great success in building a strong, cohesive team of employees who believe that being open at all levels make their jobs better for themselves and the company.