5 Leadership Tips for Managing Conflict

The ability to productively resolve conflict in the workplace is a necessary people management skill for leaders. Organizations require collaboration among employees to effectively meet their goals, but what is said or done by employees can often lead to disagreements or misunderstandings and can prevent a team or its individual members from completing tasks efficiently and effectively.

In most organizations, the typical manager spends an inordinate amount of time addressing conflicts between employees. While addressing employee-related conflicts is an expected part of a manager’s role, if done correctly, the amount of time addressing conflicts reduces dramatically. With changes in how employees are managed, the time spent in addressing conflict can even reduce to zero. By taking a behavioral approach to conflict resolution in the workplace, managers and employees can help to pinpoint specific behaviors that lead to these conflicts and find productive ways to move forward.

The science of behavior can be directly applied to the most fundamental aspects of the workplace, and solving conflicts is no exception. As discussed in the article Pinpointing, Objectivity and Achieving Alignment, examining behaviors objectively makes it possible for employees to identify specific behaviors in themselves and others that fuel conflict.

Approaching conflict resolution with behavior in mind

It often comes as a surprise that the fuel of conflict is positive reinforcement.  When conflict at work continues and escalates, the parties involved are getting some form of reinforcement for continuing the argument or disagreement.  Any behavior that continues or increases is being reinforced. While those involved in conflict may describe the situation as aversive and undesirable, and would deny that positive reinforcement is at the heart of a continuing argument or disagreement, it is. Once people begin to see how their behavior is keeping the conflict going, they begin to see how different behaviors, and sometimes rather solutions, can resolve the conflict. When trying to resolve conflict at work, the fact that the source and continuance of conflict is behavioral is important because behaviors can be changed.

Since conflict increases emotional responses, it is often difficult to know where to begin as emotional responses obscure critical events. When approaching conflict resolution between two or more employees, the following offers five best practices for coach/managers in applying the science of behavior to workplace problem-solving:

  1. Listen to the history of the conflict only once. The value in listening is that the person knows you as someone who is objective. However, after that, it is rarely helpful to keep repeating the “you said…” or “he did…” dialogue.  The conflict will be avoided by behavior changes in the future, not in the past.  In addition, memory clouded by emotion is frequently inaccurate and even if it is, discussing the disagreement only perpetuates the emotional behavior that keeps the conflict going.
  2. Identify specific actions that trigger emotional responses and reactions in the participants. Conflict is behavior that provokes a negative response or reaction from another person.  While the impact is usually emotional, it is important for the supervisor or manager to have those having the conflict to specifically identify the words, gestures facial expressions and body posture that causes a negative response from the other. Any conflict, by nature, is likely emotionally charged so rather than focus on how the conflict got started or interpreting motive and intent, focus on objective behavior.
  3. Focus on the future.  What happened yesterday is history. It cannot be changed. Given the fact that problematic behaviors can be changed, it is more productive to focus on what those behaviors should be and what behaviors will prevent a misunderstanding in the future. 
  4. Have each person track the number of times he/she responds in a new way. Each person needs to know how he/she is responding in new ways to situations where the old conflict-producing behaviors previously existed.
  5. Have the parties track the number of times he/she attempts to positively reinforce some behavior or accomplishment of the other.  We know from 50 years of working in organizations where dysfunctional behavior exists between individuals and work groups, that it is almost impossible for people to have conflicts when the mode of interaction is positive reinforcement.  When people are looking for positive things other people do, even in those with whom they are in conflict, it leaves little time or opportunity for perseverating on things others have done to harm them in any way.

A productive, healthy workplace will always have disagreements and differing opinions about what and how things should be done. This often results in creative solutions. However, all differences of opinion and disagreements do not result in conflict. When managers and other employees know the power of positive reinforcement and how to use it productively, conflict rarely occurs, and when it does, it can be resolved quickly—with the employees and the organization benefitting.



Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.