5 steps to manage staff conflict

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Ready to answer a hypothetic question?

When you arrive at work, you become aware of two of your employees arguing. As you walk closer, their voices increase in volume and one of your employees storms off slamming the door behind them. Do you:

A) Retrace your steps, leave the building and go back home?
B) Quickly say hi to them, pretend you didn’t hear anything and start work? Or
C) Take a deep breath and plan how you are going to find out what’s going on and what you can do to help resolve things?

Here’s are 5 practical steps you can take to help manage staff conflict.

1. Allow time for emotions to diminish

When people are in conflict, their heart rate has probably increased and they may not be thinking clearly. Allow time for their emotions to diminish before you offer to help them. If they are not causing a danger to themselves or another person or property, give them some time and space. This may be five minutes or an hour.

2. Ask if they need your help

When you believe the emotions of each employee have reduced, approach them, one-on-one to let them know what you saw and heard. Ask if they would like assistance in managing their conflict. Some employees feel confident to have a conversation with their colleague to discuss what happened and plan how to move forward. Encouraging people directly involved to talk with their colleague is the best strategy to manage a workplace conflict. If your employees speak with each other and don’t need your assistance, follow up with each of them to see how their conversation progressed.

3. Discover the cause of the conflict

Many employees don’t have the skills or confidence to manage their own conflict and may need a third person to help. Allow 30 to 60 minutes for each conversation. If you have pressing engagements, book a time to meet each person and in the meantime, encourage them to write down what happened.

This serves two purposes:
1. It allows for emotions to be released.
2. When reading their notes, people will usually identify some aspects as unimportant and see the real issue.

When meeting with each person, listen and ask ‘Why?’ questions. This will help you discover the real cause of the conflict. Don’t attempt to solve the conflict – it’s not your conflict to solve.

4. Time to talk face-to-face, respectfully

If both employees are willing to meet and need to have you, or a third person in the room to keep them on track, bring them together for a conversation. If you don’t believe you have the skills to manage this, engage a conflict manager. The aim of the conversation is for the participants to share their perspective on how they see the issues, hear their colleague’s perspective on the issues, understand why these issues are important to each (they may not agree but it’s valuable to hear the other person’s perspective) and design their plan of how they will work together.

5. Follow up

Two to three days after the conversation, check in with each employee to see how things are progressing. Follow up again about a week later. If they are working towards achieving the plan they designed, acknowledge their commitment to re-defining the work relationship. If there appears to be problems, have a conversation and find out what’s not working and why. You may need to return to step two and repeat the process.

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