How do you cure employee conflict? (Part 1 of 3)
7 February 2022
How can you cure employee conflict?
While there are rare exceptions, most employee conflict usually comes from either employees misunderstanding each other, having unclear job descriptions, or being part of a process that doesn’t work well.
Today let’s focus on misunderstanding and how to fix it.
To start, coworkers don’t need to be friends to work well together. They don’t need to be on each other’s social calendar or go on holiday together. While friendships (and romance, for that matter) happen in the context of work, a leader’s goal should never be to make everyone in the business “one big happy family.” Trying to make employees friends with awkward meetings to make up or trying to “sell” one employee to the other won’t work, nor should it. Ditto for threats and warnings.
Employees know this, and just like you, they can see through it.
Instead, a leader should work hard to create the best environment for employees to work well together so that they succeed collectively and individually.
Foster understanding and respect, but not necessarily friendship. (See what I did there?)
It’s pretty unusual for two employees to have such different goals in the workplace that the goals are mutually exclusive and result in ongoing conflict. However, it is common for employees to operate under bad assumptions of the other one, and made judgements based on this.
So what can you do if you would like to keep two valuable strong performers who clash with each other?
First, spend some time with each one separately and privately – with quiet curiosity – and find out what they are trying to do in their job. It’s very unlikely that either employee actually wants conflict, wants the business to fail, or took a job as a way to work out personal issues.
Second, separately ask each employee why they are trying to do the things they described. Eventually you’ll be able to tease goals out of what he or she says.
Don’t make the meetings or your questions about conflict, make the meetings about what each employee is trying to do at work and why. Just listen and make sure you understand. This might take a couple of iterations..
Ninety-nine percent of the time, the two employees will have many goals in common – for themselves, for the business, for the success of the product they work on together, or in the way the business operates. Maybe they differ on how those goals should be accomplished, or their relative priority, but there will be a lot in common between the two.
This commonality is the the path to resolution.
The third step is to bring the employees together. This would not be the time for powerpoint, fancy positioning or indirect speech. Be kind, professional and direct with a simple message: you know that both employees have certain goals in common (describe them), and you also know the conflict between them is causing problems for the business. Talk about the similarities between them, and help them understand that differences of opinion are not wrong but they are valuable, they both have a lot to gain by learning either the other’s approach or the collaborative result that comes from the difference.
Expect and be prepared for a little resistance. Sit with that resistance, together. It’ has been a clash, after all, so it’s unrealistic to expect that a few wise words from you will cause them to suddenly become BFF’s. Mention that difference and conflict are not the same thing – difference is necessary for collaboration, it’s a big part of success and working together, but conflict is destructive. Depending on how strong the conflict and the resistance, this third step might take more more than one meeting too.
But spending the time resolving the conflict is almost always worth it.
Remember that the cost to help two valuable employees work together is far less than the cost of firing, hiring and training a new employee – especially since a new employee is an unknown, and by the way, are you sure you fired the right one? You want employees to have different opinions, approaches and methods because that almost always produces better outcomes – as long as they work well together.
Finally, it’s time for you to describe your expectations of each employee’s responsibility. It’s part of their jobs to play well with others, and with your offer of continuous support and understanding that their goals are similar, conflict can usually be resolved.
These are basic ideas of a common path towards conflict resolution, and while the specifics of your situation will determine how you take these steps, following a path like this is usually very successful.
Would you like to read more? How job descriptions can help or hurt employee relationships (Part 2) and how process can do the same (Part 3).
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