How to manage work relationships during conflicts
By Eileen Hogan, M.S., Ed.S.
Conflicts at work are inevitable. They’re as present in the workplace as computers, coffee makers and conference rooms. So, while you can avoid dealing with conflicts, you cannot avoid conflicts.
Relationships are the foundation for everything that happens in the workplace, and the quality of relationships has a significant impact on organizational outcomes. So, the way that you, as a leader, handle work relationships during times of conflict matters immensely. Your ability to master this workplace skill directly impacts performance—on your team, in your department and throughout your organization. It also directly impacts you. An inability to be relationship-savvy can be crippling to your business and, over time, stall your career.
That’s why one of the chief skills we teach CEOs, executives and other senior leaders during our Mastering Leadership Dynamics™ program is how to build and manage relationships during conflicts.
During Mastering Leadership Dynamics, we help leaders recognize when they are in a conflict—which isn’t always obvious—and how to more accurately define what the conflict is about for them, distinct from what the conflict may be about for the other person. We also help leaders learn how to keep the conflict about the conflict and not about the other person involved.
In a recent Mastering Leadership Dynamics course, I worked with an executive, Simon, who described a conflict with a direct report, Lydia. (Yes, I’ve changed the names of the individuals involved.) The basis of the conflict: Simon wanted Lydia to be more innovative—and it wasn’t happening.
Simon was so frustrated with Lydia’s lack of innovation that he was considering transferring Lydia to a different department, just to get rid of her.
Thanks to Mastering Leadership Dynamics, Simon realized his conflict with Lydia was largely one of his own creation. For instance, he recognized that he hadn’t clearly defined his expectations to Lydia, nor had he told Lydia that he wanted her to be innovative. When Simon returned to work after Mastering Leadership Dynamics, he sat down with Lydia and had the direct, open and employee-empowering conversation with her that he should have conducted months earlier.
After their talk, the relationship between Simon and Lydia quickly changed. Not only did Simon discover that Lydia possessed the ability and capacity to bring out-of-the-box ideas to him, but his conflict with her evaporated almost overnight.
Don’t do this: Avoid these work relationship errors
Leaders often make three relationship mistakes during conflicts:
Their immediate reaction is emotional.
Typically, many people (myself included) don’t make great decisions when their emotions are in charge. We tend to be more defensive and focus on protecting ourselves through proving we are a good leader.
Work conflicts can cause a leader to subconsciously question their talents, their leadership effectiveness or their ability to be successful in the future. These uneasy feelings can cause them to act rashly in an effort to prove their leadership ability to themselves and others.
Their preconceived ideas about other people muddy the waters.
Many leaders approach a conflict with preconceived ideas about the other person involved, such as their intelligence or competency. When these assumptions are inaccurate, it is difficult for a leader to objectively understand a conflict and focus on its successful resolution.
They don’t invest enough time and effort in relationships.
A solid work relationship isn’t built in an instant. Leaders need to regularly invest time and energy into their work relationships. Work relationships are like a home or vehicle—they need ongoing maintenance and attention to be viable over the long-term.
Do this: Develop these communication and management skills
To help leaders improve their relationship management skills, we devote a good amount of time in Mastering Leadership Dynamics discussing communication. We show leaders how to:
- Be better listeners
- Ask more effective questions
- Give clearer directions
We also work with CEOs and executives on their coaching skills, such as:
- Being genuinely curious about employees—what’s important to them, what they bring to the table beyond their role, responsibilities, etc.
- Enabling employees to grow from where they are, not from where you think they should be
- Understanding their strengths
- Helping employees develop answers on their own
These are essential leadership tools for relationship management and conflict resolution.
Take care of your employees
A fair number of leaders think building and managing relationships is secondary to “getting the work done” and it takes too much time and effort.
The bottom line is, though, they need people to accomplish the work. They need to take care of their employees, so their employees take care of the work.
When they don’t invest their time and effort into employee relationships, they pay on the back end with lower employee engagement, higher employee turnover and, not surprisingly, less desirable outcomes.
Spend the time and energy up front to create the best possible outcomes or spend the time and energy on the back end to address what is getting in the way of great outcomes. I think the first type of approach is better. Don’t you?
Take the next step
Register for Mastering Leadership Dynamics
Eileen Hogan, M.S., Ed.S., is an assistant vice president and consultant at The BB&T Leadership Institute. She has 25-plus years of experience in helping individuals, teams and organizations be more effective.
Her previous articles include “Assess your organizational culture by asking the kind of questions an outside consultant would ask.”
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