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The Manager as Mediator: 5 Tips for Managing Conflict Between Co-Workers

by Judy Ringer, author, Turn Enemies Into Allies

· How do I manage conflict between employees?

· What should I do when coworkers don’t get along?

In 26 years of teaching and coaching, I have seen managers and leaders struggle with these questions. Why? Because conflict among coworkers saps time and energy and limits creativity, not to mention keeping managers up at night.

I see otherwise skilled and technically savvy managers and chief executives wondering what to do. Should I intervene? Bring them together? Work individually? What do I say?

It’s not an easy decision. If you intervene unskillfully, you can exacerbate the problem. If you avoid confronting the issue, it will probably remain unresolved, get worse and negatively affect the work environment.

The good news? While not always intuitive, the skills and competencies to resolve organizational conflict do exist and can be learned.

PC: Adobe Stock

5 Competencies for Managing Conflict Between Co-Workers

In my book, “Turn Enemies In Allies: The Art of Peace in the Workplace” I address five leadership competencies that allow managers to unravel coworker conflict before it ensnares the entire team, which it can do if left unaddressed. This article offers suggestions for a step-by-step process. The book addresses each step in depth.

1) First Manage You

Your attitude toward what’s happening makes all the difference. If you think it will go badly or well, you’re right. Reframe the conflict for yourself and your employees as an opportunity to learn and grow, and for things to change for the better.

Your job is to adopt and demonstrate confidence that the conflict is merely potential energy, whose outcome is as yet unknown.

While it is a conflict — it is also an opportunity:

  • For the relationship to change for the better.
  • For the parties to learn valuable work and life skills
  • To see their conflict partner’s more positive aspects.
  • To step into a leadership role as they model conflict competency in the organization.

Understand this as a process of coaching, mediation, and resolution. It may take time, and your primary power is in the quality of your Being. Everything else is secondary. In this sense, you have more power than you think to help these people resolve their differences.

2) Measure and Gain Commitment

If there is one key ingredient for a successful outcome, it is the participants’ willingness to commit. Are the parties willing to change? Or do they prefer to believe that everything would be fine if only their colleague or coworker weren’t so difficult? If they’re not willing to engage in a process of conflict resolution, it will be more difficult. Your first job will be to help them find their motivation.

3) Meet Individually First

Time pressures and the need to resolve the problem encourage us to get the parties together right away. And while this strategy is tempting, it often makes matters worse, because the parties don’t yet have the skills or perspective they need to be open to any view but their own. This is especially true if the conflict has been going on for a while and is beginning to polarize the work environment. Instead, consider meeting with each person individually for one or more sessions. Let each person tell their story and listen with objectivity, non-judgment, and curiosity. When each feels heard they will be more willing to listen.

4) Build and Teach Conflict and Communication Skills

A majority of the book’s content is devoted to these skills. In this step you want to help your people develop:

  • Readiness to see and acknowledge the other person’s point of view.
  • Capacity to manage and direct emotional energy purposefully.
  • Ability to listen for understanding.
  • Desire to transform an opponent into a partner for problem-solving.

Once they understand and begin to practice these skills in sessions with you, you can bring them together.

5) Bring the Parties Together

As you bring the parties together in one or more joint meetings, begin by building rapport, including small talk, common interests, goals, and work habits.

As you discuss areas of conflict, ask the parties to guess and acknowledge what they imagine is the other’s point of view. Ask questions to stimulate further conversation about values, wisdom gained from this process, and what a sustainable resolution might look like.

Why Bother?

In today’s workplace where time is so important and none of us have enough of it, you may wonder why this “to-do” should rise to the top of your priority list, and how you’ll find the time. Ask yourself:

  • Is conflict among coworkers costing you time and energy?
  • Do you find yourself waking up at night wondering what to do?
  • Is the tension affecting others?
  • Does the conflict limit the team’s ability to accomplish goals?

I’ve found it takes more time not to resolve conflict than to address it.

Save Time By Addressing the Conflict

Learning to intervene in organizational conflict will save you and your team time, aggravation, and money as you focus on what you do best.

For me, it’s a privilege to help conflicting parties come to a new understanding. I watch with awe as two people learn to (re)discover each other, gain new awareness, remove barriers, soften, and change to become more of who they are, not less. It’s an exciting vantage point. And it could be yours.

I appreciate that addressing conflict can be daunting. Understand that you will also be practicing the skills, attitudes, and behaviors you want for your staff and that this important aspect of your job will become easier and more satisfying with experience. In the process, you’ll increase your own leadership presence and power to manage whatever may come.

Judy Ringer is the founder of Power & Presence Training, and the author of Turn Enemies Into Allies and Unlikely Teachers. An international speaker, coach, and seminar leader, and third-degree black belt in aikido, Judy brings to life essential conflict skills such as self-management under pressure and appreciation of other viewpoints. Clients include the National Institutes of Health, the Chicago Federal Executive Board, GE, Sony Corp., Honda, and Frito-Lay. Judy was born and raised in the Chicago area and now lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

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