How to successfully resolve conflict between staff members before it poisons morale
Question: I hold a senior role in a large software company and manage a team of 20 software developers. Managing a growing team can be a challenge but I enjoy it most of the time. However, I have a situation where two of my more senior team leaders do not get on. This has been obvious since the most recent hire joined the team. While neither has done anything that would cause me to discipline them, the morale of the team has definitely been affected by the tension between them. How do I resolve this?
Answer: Conflict resolution is an issue a lot of managers have to face and it can be unsettling for everyone. You need to take the right approach as early as possible to ensure it doesn't grow out of proportion.
Conflict can cause a toxic environment within the workplace so you need to totally understand the situation and act responsibly. Management is not about popularity or avoiding a negative reputation but about ensuring you act in the best interest of the team and the organisation in an ethical manner. All managers and leaders must expect to have to deal with a conflict situation at some point so here are some pointers to consider.
1. Timing is key
Avoiding the situation or putting it off until another day will not wash. You need to take action where you have evidence that there is a situation, which is negatively impacting others - and that there is a pattern to it. Striking too early without proper information will lead to possible confrontation. But the other team members need to see that you are acting and can deal with adversity.
2. Know your employees
Some employees may not understand the consequences of their actions, so you need to be able to understand their boundaries. Ensure you can read the timing of when they do actually cross the line, understand their behavioural tendencies, mindset shifts, etc, so you can reach them just before that point of 'no return'.
This can be achieved by having one-to-one discussions with employees on a regular basis or engaging in coaching sessions so all employees know what is expected and what is not acceptable.
3. There will be differences
Everyone will view things from differing points of view - so you do have to listen, interpret the situation and respect cultural and generational diversity. Often your role may be that as a facilitator or mediator so your listening skills may take centre stage, but if tensions rise you need to ensure no one steps out of line.
4. Confront the issue
Management is about doing the things most other people would not like to do, so you need to activate your management skills. Be the wise owl and deal with the situation, even if it seems trivial to you, as it could be a major grievance for one of the parties involved and lead to attrition down the road. The longer you leave the situation, other team members will start discussing it and question your management capability. Your team needs to be able to trust you as a leader to deliver a safe, healthy and conflict-free environment
5. Build team cohesion
There are several factors that must be present for cohesion within a team. They must share a common goal and collectively work towards it. Communication is essential and, above all, they need to understand that what they do together as a team is better than what they do on their own and so respect for each other is essential.
It is important to recognise that some people can work through conflict with no repercussions but others often feel overwhelmed, afraid or too proud to work through it. You need to foster an environment where the workplace will embrace healthy conflict but not tolerate negative or toxic issues that will cause a breakdown in the culture you are creating.
A sprinkling of healthy conflict is not all negative and can foster growth as it allows people to listen, discuss and reach a conclusion. It will test the fabric of the relationship when the tension is resolved and both parties can foresee a win-win outcome for themselves and the team.
For the manager, this will certainly hone their your own maturity in dealing with situations and not just brushing them under the carpet.
Michelle Murphy is director of Collins McNicholas, Recruitment & HR Services, which has six offices in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Sligo, Athlone and Limerick. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org