Why Managers Let Workplace Conflict Grow

Why Managers Let Workplace Conflict Grow

Managers play a crucial role in reducing interpersonal workplace conflict, but for a number of reasons they often don't recognise when issues require intervention, a conflict resolution specialist says.

Conflict usually stems from one person's interpretation of another's behaviour, thinking and intentions, Workplace Conflict Resolution managing director Catherine Gillespie told HR Daily ahead of her upcoming webinar on managing personality conflicts at work.

 "When our interpretation is not aligned with what we think is right or with what we ourselves would have done or said, we experience conflict. However, in most cases, our interpretation of the other person's actions is actually wrong," she says, noting interpretations can be made because of poor communication, differences in values or culture, or personality differences.

One reason managers miss conflict within their team is that they are often more resilient than their staff and so don't necessarily see conflict or distress in the same light, she notes.

Another reason is that managers often don't have the necessary skills to manage and resolve conflict, and therefore tend to avoid addressing it. They use excuses such as, "I'm too busy", "they can sort it out themselves", "it's not that big of an issue", or "I can address it later on; if someone's really upset then they'll come and speak to me again".

"Some managers are uncomfortable with dealing with emotional situations, so they can be quick to dismiss the issue as quite trivial, and justify their inaction on the fact that the actual incident itself wasn't a big deal," Gillespie says.

Reactive and preventative conflict management 

Managers can take two approaches to deal with conflict at work: reactive and preventative, Gillespie says.

Managers must ensure they can recognise employees' reactions to situations and determine whether these might indicate something is wrong, she says. Whether a reaction is immediate, or delayed, managers can look out for employees withdrawing from work, not talking to colleagues as much, or taking more sick leave than usual, for example.

And rather than waiting for employees to approach them about issues, managers should check in with their staff, Gillespie says.

Employees aren't going to discuss issues with their manager in a team meeting, in the corridor, or at their desk, so it is vital managers schedule (and stick to) one-on-one meetings with each team member. This gives employees a private setting to share any potential conflict issues.

If the employee doesn't raise any issues but the manager still knows or suspects something has happened, they could say to the employee, for example, that they looked anxious or frustrated when a certain situation occurred, and ask them how they feel about it, Gillespie says.

If a manager has witnessed a conflict situation, they should privately approach each party involved to find out what happened and determine if it has been resolved.

 "Too often I find that managers want to rush these conversations," Gillespie says. "They'll ask if there was an incident and when told yes they'll ask if it was resolved. If the answer is yes, the manager tends to then close down the conversation without realising that staff want to talk about issues and they want to feel heard. A quickly closed down conversation may do more damage to the manager/team member relationship than if the manager had not asked the initial question."

Managers can also take a more preventative approach to dealing with conflict through training employees on appropriate workplace behaviour and encouraging them to self-manage potential conflict situations, she adds.

If employees don't manage issues in the early stages, and if their manager isn't skilled in conflict management, conflict can escalate, she warns. It is therefore helpful to develop employees' skills in this area and promote team work around effective communication and recognising different personality styles.

In most instances where the behaviour is not unlawful or unsafe, employees should be managing conflict themselves, Gillespie says, but managers play a crucial role in coaching staff through this process.

If an employee then approaches their manager and says they have unsuccessfully tried to resolve the conflict issues, that is when the manager can intervene, she says.

Our webinar will explain more about HR's role in recognising and de-escalating workplace conflict. Register your place or learn more here.

This article was originally published on HR Daily.

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About the Author

Catherine Gillespie brings a wealth of skill to her clients. With particular expertise in teaching communication and workplace conflict resolution skills, Catherine has made a marked difference to the organisations she has worked with. She empowers teams and managers to adopt constructive styles that support harmony, productivity and progress in the workplace.