Kenneth Kaye once said, “Conflict is neither good nor bad. Properly managed, it is absolutely vital.”
Highly effective leaders identify, understand and develop swift and smart resolutions to workplace conflicts, most of which demand some level of confrontation. Yet I’ve found many coaching clients dread confrontation, shifting the focus toward diversionary topics or simply turning a blind eye to avoid tough conversations. But running from conflict will not serve anyone well. Ultimately, the elephant in the room only grows or becomes much more unwieldy.
The implications of shunning confrontation range from a breakdown of communication and damaged relationships to lowered organizational productivity and morale. Here are some questions to consider when evaluating your ability to effectively confront employees during times of conflict. Be sure to write down your answers:
• On a scale of 1–5, how comfortable are you with having tough conversations?
• What is your go-to method for handling conflict with employees? E-mail, phone, face-to-face or other?
• Is it hard for you to manage your emotions effectively when talking about a challenging or fear-inducing situation?
• How do you create an open dialogue with your team, regardless of difficult circumstances?
• How do you exhibit poise and self-control in the presence of confrontations?
• How comfortable are you with giving what might be perceived as negative feedback?
If your answers to the above are less than appealing, the following tips can guide you to build a healthy workplace culture that faces confrontation at the right time with courage and confidence:
1. Identify the opportunity. Shift the lens through which you view conflict. By adopting a positive outlook on confrontation, you’ll discover that every conflict is a new opportunity for both the other party and you to grow, develop and learn. After all, if you have tended to avoid conflict, the underlying topics and details are likely things that you have rarely, if ever, discussed, representing growth opportunities and innovative approaches you have yet to uncover.
2. Build a culture that encourages giving and receiving feedback. Ask your team for their frequent, healthy feedback, and you will begin to show boldness and encourage transparency through your example. Allowing unpleasant truths to trickle out gradually fosters a sense of camaraderie and understanding within your organization, in turn reducing the risk of future conflict. What’s more, creating honest dialogue lets your employees know their opinions are valued, raising their level of engagement. Finally, when confrontations do arise, they will feel far more inclined to receive your concerns with an open mind and an appreciation of your opinion instead of reflexively thinking the sky is falling.
3. Be proactive, but resist jumping to conclusions. Prevent problematic behavior from escalating beyond repair by taking swift action, but do not jump to conclusions before reaching a full understanding of the situation. Assume positive intent to immediately activate a spirit that diffuses the situation. Another way to be proactive is to measure your words to avoid being the source of conflict in the first place. Saying, “I need to see you in my office at 3 p.m.” has the potential to spiral reactions that “Can we prioritize the risks on your project in my office at 3 p.m.?” would otherwise sidestep.
4. Do not use e-mail for conflict. If e-mail is your go-to to manage conflict, it is time to get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. Let your level of fear be your compass. The more emotion you are feeling, the more the situation is likely to be faced in person. If you don’t, you are subjecting yourself to the gravitational forces that pull these types of situations southward. Effective conflict management will require real-time awareness of the facts and your undivided attention.
5. Engage productively using storytelling. Before any confrontation, consider that the other person may be right from the beginning and question your own opinion. When you do present your concerns, start with storytelling if you can, rather than headlining with any abrupt, premature summaries of your stance on the matter(s) at hand. We experience our lives through stories, which are entertaining and engaging. Make your case and then create space for the other person to process and respond to you, and truly listen to them.
Using Humor To Alleviate The Burden Of Confrontation
Here’s an example conflict of a peer ignoring your emails or requests. Say you have an eight-year-old named Janet.
You: “You know, it’s hilarious that lately when I call Janet in the other room, I can holler four or five times, and no answer.”
Peer: “You, too, huh? Yeah, no one is exempt.”
You: “But if I yell something like ‘Hey, it’s time for ice cream!’ she’ll break furniture and run over the dog to get to me.”
Peer: (laughing) “As I said, no one is exempt.”
You: “I think I’m going to start sending you e-mails about ice cream.”
Now it’s all in the delivery, and every relationship requires its own special touch, but humor and storytelling, like in the example above, are much more effective than just sending an instant message or e-mail. Wouldn’t that be ironic saying, “Why don’t you answer any of my e-mails?”
By being fully accountable to the demands of leadership, and committing yourself to the above steps, almost every confrontation you have can be redirected toward a productive outcome. Those former self-doubts and insecurities that hindered your ability to face conflict will be replaced with confident, courageous resolve and an understanding of the healthy dynamics that can move your business forward faster than you ever thought possible.