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Manager training should cover conflict

Conflict occurs in every workplace. What can we do to prepare managers for dealing with disputes and clashes? Managers can be taught to make informed choices to lead teams able to navigate through conflicts.
5 min read

The cost of conflict

Conflict occurs in every workplace. Even the best teams can find themselves moving from collaboration to conflict. Managers will be faced with conflicts on their teams. And possibly conflict between their team and another team. What can we do to prepare managers for dealing with conflict?

Conflict is hard. It’s emotional. We didn’t practice conflict resolution in school. We probably haven’t observed multiple occasions of conflict being handled productively. Instead, we learned responses from our parents and others. Many of us are still behaving in the same ways we learned while young and, instead of making choices, we’re relying on habits and old beliefs. Managers are no different, but they need to make informed choices to lead effective teams.

Need some statistics on the cost of workplace conflict to support including it in training? Here’s what a study conducted by CPP Global concluded:
Unsurprisingly, poorly managed conflicts have a cost attached to them: the average employee spends 2.1 hours a week dealing with conflict. For the US alone, that translates to 385 million working days spent every year as a result of conflict in the workplace. One in six (16%) say a recent dispute escalated in duration and/or intensity, only 11% of those surveyed have never experienced a disagreement that escalated.

We must acknowledge that how a manager deals with conflict has an effect on the entire team or department. In a recent interview with Coaching Psychologist Karen Lanson, she observed, “the conflict never stays confined,” and offered an example of two managers in conflict: their staffs were meeting in stairwells to avoid being seen as collaborating with the enemy. That’s not a healthy nor productive environment. Workplace conflicts can decrease motivation and collaboration, increase absenteeism and project failures, and be the reason for the loss of good employees.

It’s common for managers to be conflict avoidant. The best time to deal with conflict is when it’s small. But that’s when it’s natural for us to just hope that it will resolve itself. Or that people will work it out. Often it doesn’t and they don’t.

It’s also common for managers to be aggressive and to lose their objectivity. If only subordinates experience that aggression and short-term goals are met, the manager might even be promoted.

We all know from past experience, for instance, what kinds of conversations and people we handle badly.… Once you know what your danger zones are, you can anticipate your vulnerability and improve your response.
Holly Weeks in “Taking the Stress Out of Stressful Conversations

Training works

As Lanson has observed, “leaders can learn to be more versatile in their approach to conflict.” That’s why conflict can be a powerful part of management training.

As noted in the CPP Global study:
Where training does exist, it adds value: over 95% of people receiving training as part of leadership development or on formal external courses say that it helped them in some way. A quarter (27%) say it made them more comfortable and confident in managing disputes and 58% of those who have been trained say they now look for win–win outcomes from conflict.

We all have choices; writing the rules of engagement

[Healthy conflict is] built on the rules and code of ethics established as part of company culture. These must be built into your company’s cultural DNA from day one on a foundation of trust and respect.
David Roth in “Supporting Healthy Conflict In The Workplace”

Conflict doesn’t have to be destructive or eroding of relationships. On the contrary, managers need to learn how to foster productive conflict on teams. Training can cover several ways of creating the psychological safety necessary for healthy conflict.

Clear vision; clear roles

An organization’s mission statement might be reviewed in management training, but trainers need to go further to help managers who struggle with how to translate that mission for themselves. Managers must take responsibility for translating an organization’s mission and their leadership’s vision into a more focused vision for their own teams. Gaining alignment around that vision can encourage conflict that ultimately supports it. Teams need help to see how their jobs, their tools, and routines are all connected. A clear understanding of purpose can go a long way in avoiding unnecessary tensions.

Clear roles can reduce friction that comes from confusion about responsibilities. If everyone understands their job priorities and those of others, team members can hold each other accountable for results. They can understand why there might be differences depending on one’s role, not one’s basic personality. In other words, someone might not be a jerk, they might just be trying to get the resources they need to fulfill their obligations to the organization’s mission.

Clear roles can also create healthy friction. For example, tactics the marketing team wants to use might naturally conflict with the concerns of the risk management group. Information security might want to eliminate traffic from outside servers, but the research group might need a connection to a university. Those conflicts need to be surfaced and addressed in light of the organization’s mission and goals—and in this example, risk levels and tolerance. When both teams understand the bigger vision of what they are working toward, collaboration and problem-solving are more likely to occur.

Managers can be taught how to create spaces for enthusiastic exchanges and lively debates about how best to realize the organization and the team’s vision.

Disagreements and debate at work are healthy. Fighting is not.
Annie McKee in “Why We Fight at Work

Choices and culture

Managers can be encouraged to look at how they tend to respond to conflict. What are their most common behaviors? We all have fight, flight, or freeze responses. If they feel they must fight, what are they usually fighting for and how? If they flee, why do they typically flee? If they freeze, what is paralyzing them? When do they feel most threatened at work? Managers can learn to understand their responses to conflict and then to manage their physical and emotional expressions.

We all make assumptions about the rules of any game, based on how we have played it before or played something similar. But anyone who has encountered “house rules” during a game knows that conflict can arise when these rules aren’t understood by everyone. Those rules need to be explained. Do managers know their team’s “house rules”? Have they helped set them?

Managers can learn how to define and address the customs and conventions of their teams. They can use these as a way of building a stronger team. It can be helpful to have a facilitator come in and ask questions such as these: How does your team define the difference between debating and fighting? What’s not OK to do if you’re upset? What is OK and expected? What does it mean if someone is silent? How will you hold each other accountable for a missed deadline or a rude comment? When do you need consensus? Is there a difference in what behaviors are acceptable based on gender or ethnicity? Has the introduction of younger staff or staff from a new location changed how the group expresses itself? Everyone needs to freely participate, so often it’s best not to have the manager lead these discussions.

After learning more about the culture of their team, managers can explicitly set expectations that create a culture of respect that assumes positive intent. These expectations can also be shared when onboarding new team members.

Know when to call for help

Even with preparation and training, conflicts will occur that managers aren’t yet prepared for. We know that the best time to deal with destructive conflict is before the snide remarks begin, before the project fails, before team members start quitting, before you’re desperate. But if a conflict seems beyond a manager’s skill to handle, there’s the option of calling in a specialist.

If mediation or conflict resolution is needed, then having someone from outside the organization can bypass issues of mistrust. And someone skilled in these techniques will make better progress than a manager.

Make sure managers know what resources they can use. Your employee assistance program (EAP) might have the skills to help, or you can call in a coach who specializes in conflict coaching or conflict management. Coaches like Lanson prefer to be called in early—before a crisis. You might even consider asking a coach or consultant to help create a curriculum around productive conflict and conflict management.

Introducing conflict awareness and choices to your management training can have a measurable effect on organizational culture and on end results.


Kristeen Bullwinkle

Steeped in Everything DiSC since 2010. Strongly inclined CD style. Leadership style and EQ mindset: resolute. Believes strongly in the serial comma.

Certifications from Wiley:
Everything DiSC, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team

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