In a perfect world, teams are cohesive units. Everyone gets along and supports one another.
Reality paints a different picture — and leaders often find themselves in the position of peacemaker when two team members butt heads.
Ron had moved up the ranks into a leadership role at a national commercial real estate company — partly because of his keen insights into urban development trends, but also because of his knack for developing and maintaining relationships with clients and colleagues alike. While he had great empathy for others, one thing he struggled to understand — and manage — was conflict among team members.
Ron is not alone. Many leaders struggle when faced with quarrels among team members. And when people work together day after day, minor skirmishes are inevitable. But, as we often reiterate in our executive coaching practice, ignoring conflict doesn’t make it disappear.
7 Executive Coaching Strategies for Managing Conflict
By diffusing or dealing with conflict among team members, you can significantly enhance workplace morale — and boost individual and team productivity. The following guidelines can help:
- Recognize the fine line between differences in opinion and conflict — Some people like to play the devil’s advocate, challenging other people’s ideas for the seeming sport of it. If confrontation makes you uncomfortable, explore the reasons. Then, try increasing your comfort level when two people express different ideas. Recognize that, if handled correctly, disagreements can bring progress and innovation to an organization.
- Encourage team members to solve conflict on their own — It is the wise parent who knows that sometimes, interfering in a sibling squabble only makes matters worse. Likewise, as a leader, you run the risk of escalating a spirited disagreement by getting involved. Our executive coaches recommend encouraging squabbling team members to meet in a neutral location, like a conference room as opposed to one person’s office or cubicle, to try to work out their differences.
- Know when to intervene — At the same time, sometimes co-workers are unable to settle conflicts on their own. Let them know that you are available as a sounding board, and that they are welcome to set up a meeting with you as mediator. When one of Ron’s team members felt like another team member was constantly “throwing him under the bus” in front of clients, Ron invited the two into his office for a meeting, giving each a chance to speak his piece. As it turned out, the team member who felt victimized hadn’t been carrying his weight in recent weeks because his mother’s cancer had taken a turn for the worse, and he had been taking off more time to spend with her. The other team member had no idea. Engaging in this difficult but important conversation helped forge a more cooperative spirit between the two men, who collectively brought in record business that year.
- Set ground rules — While many companies have codes of conduct built into their corporate policy and/or culture, others do not. You may need to create a set of guidelines for your own team if you overhear unkind remarks or witness any hint of workplace bullying. With help from our executive coaches, Ron came up with a list of “Team Communication Standards” for his team, which he discussed at a meeting, and later hung on the department bulletin board. Examples included, “Be respectful and honest,” “Use ‘I’ statements,” “Be direct and succinct,” and “Be present — no sidebar conversations.”
- Remain neutral — It might be tempting to take sides in a conflict between team members, but as a leader, you need to be Switzerland. Make sure you are giving team members equal time and opportunity to voice their opinions and feel heard. Notice if certain situations or responses push your own buttons, and try to keep personal biases out of the equation.
- Recognize incendiary conditions — When people are stressed, overtired or anxious, their coping skills are often compromised. If your company is going through a transition — whether a buyout or merger, a slowdown resulting in cutbacks or layoffs, or even a physical move — it can take a toll on individual and team morale. Even a period of rapid growth can cause mood shifts as people work 15-hour days to keep pace. When leaders seek our executive coaching services during trying times, we recommend taking additional steps to manage their own mood states so that they are better able to moderate the team atmosphere.
- Be proactive — If you notice tensions running high, encourage team members to take a break. A 15-minute respite in the cafeteria or a brisk walk around the block can do wonders to help calm a riled-up employee — before they say something they regret. Promote a positive workplace environment by participating in a novel, team-building activity or through cultivating group traditions. Ron discovered that celebrating team sales goals and other victories with a group lunch outside of the office fostered increased transparency and a deeper sense of connectedness among team members. When people learned to appreciate and respect each other as individuals, their interactions back at the office took on a much richer quality.
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