Personality clashes, disagreements, and other conflicts between staff are bound to happen in workplaces. But whose job is it to resolve them? More often than not, it’s falling on managers.
Some 56% of managers said they are fully responsible for managing and resolving team conflicts – whether or not they feel prepared to do so, found a Gartner survey of over 3,000 managers from around the world taken last year.
Most managers aren’t properly trained in de-escalating and resolving conflicts on their teams. Those in HR roles are typically more experienced, but bringing in HR often only escalates the situation, experts say. Managers will have to get better equipped as the skill becomes essential for them to run functioning teams, and as personal viewpoints around political and social issues continue becoming more polarized and harder to keep out of workplaces.
Keep politics out of the workplace? Good luck
Political conversations are a large driver of conflict between coworkers today, said Emily Rose McRae, senior director analyst at Gartner. “People are by algorithmic bias and by personal bias, exposed to people who think like them,” McRae said. “The workplace is one of the few places that you are likely to be exposed to people who think differently than you,” she said. And with a U.S. presidential election this year, tension and disputes at work are likely to rise.
Different kinds of working arrangements are also changing the nature of workplace conflicts. Remote and hybrid work means less frequent exposure to coworkers and potentially fewer instances to hear or make offhand comments that could offend others, but at the same time, “we’re looking at situations now where there also isn’t as much tolerance and goodwill built up between people,” McRae said.
When two team members are at odds over politics and struggling to effectively work together, the default response from managers is often to “keep it out of the workplace,” she said.
“The conversations that we’re gonna be having are so full of potential math landmines, that we need managers who are actually skilled at not just saying, ‘take it outside kids,’ but actually say, ‘Listen, I hear you, this is an intense conversation, we’re going to talk about this later, I’ll come and find each of you and we’ll talk separately and then we can talk about it together,” she said.
Companies should bring in dedicated conflict management training to start, the Gartner report said. They should also offer shadowing and coaching opportunities for new managers to see how more experienced leaders resolve heated conflicts between employees. Finally, they need to find ways to recognize and reward those who effectively solve conflicts at all levels of an organization.
“Conflict resolution in this approach is not a natural talent, it’s like a muscle, you have to practice it,” she said.
Competing, avoiding, accommodating, compromising, or collaborating?
Other drivers of workplace conflicts include poor communication and a lack of clarity around people’s roles and who is responsible for what, said John Hackston, head of thought leadership at HR consultancy The Myers-Briggs Company.
Some tools exist to help managers build up their conflict resolution skills, like the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument from the Meyers-Briggs company. It’s used widely by those in HR, and the TKI tool suggests there are five styles of approaching conflicts that each person typically takes depending on their personality: competing, avoiding, accommodating, compromising, or collaborating.
Managers can use the tool to answer survey questions and determine what conflict resolution style they tend to employ most often.
“Once you find your conflict style you can make that informed choice to adapt to different situations,” said Hackston.“ Just having that self-awareness and knowledge is very much important.”
“We all have a tendency to be more or less assertive, and more or less collaborative,” which influences which approach we typically take,” he said.
Most managers take a competing style where “they want to win,” Hackston said. Those who compete through conflicts are assertive and uncooperative and look out for their own views and interests before others. This method can work depending on the nature of the situation and the intended outcome but isn’t ideal.
“What happens is you want to get your needs met, want to win at all costs. You’re not really concerned about meeting your person’s needs. That gets your needs met, but again, you’re at risk of not meeting the other person’s needs,” Hackston said.
An example might be when a manager (or coworker) uses their position and experience to justify making a final decision that does not consider voiced concerns from another person on the team.
Those who are unassertive often take the avoiding approach, where they simply ignore conflicts or tell staff to “keep politics out of the workplace,” for example. Accommodating is another style for those with less assertive personalities, and those managers may put others’ needs and views before their own simply to diffuse a situation.
Those taking a compromising approach come from a mentality of “you scratch my back, I scratch yours,” Hackston said.
Finally, those who approach conflicts with a collaborating approach are assertive and cooperative, and often have the best outcomes, Hackston said. “You’re trying to find a solution that meets both of your needs,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not practical though, because it takes more work, it takes more time, it takes buy-in from both parties, and it takes a certain level of interpersonal skills as well.”
Psychological safety and civility
What preempts a lot of workplace disputes though is ensuring an environment offers a certain degree of civility and psychological safety, said Matt Summers, global head of culture and leadership at the NeuroLeadership Institute.
“All of this is helping to build a sense of productivity, when people feel safe, when people feel like they’ve been civil to each other,” Summers said.
The term psychological safety itself is often misunderstood, but at its core means being comfortable with feeling discomfort at work, and having faith that conflicts will be able to be resolved civilly.
Part of the reason embedding psychological safety as a tactic hasn’t caught on within the majority of organizations is that some leaders find the reality of applying it leaves them vulnerable to potential undermining from team members. That kind of “weaponized psychological safety” is a deterrent among some teams, executive coach Sope Agbelusi previously told WorkLife.
The NeuroLeadership Institute has established a set of de-escalation guidelines to try and arm managers within corporate organizations, and any people with general public-facing jobs, to defuse situations in which tensions like these arise.
Ultimately, everyone has some responsibility in ensuring conflicts are solved effectively in workplaces. “Part of your job expectations are that you’re able to treat someone civilly, cordially, and get your work done,” McRae said. “And if at any point you start to interfere with those, then we actually have a performance issue, not just a communications issue.”