3 Steps for Leaders to Minimize Conflict

How do you handle the nuisances that life – and your employees – throw at you on a daily basis? The way you respond has a direct impact on how much conflict you’ll have to deal with in the future. These three steps can help you minimize conflict now and later.

Conflict in the workplace is inevitable. Every manager needs to understand the steps that can be taken to minimize the occurrence of it.

The following action steps will not eliminate conflict, but it most definitely will minimize the amount of severity of it.

1. Be proactive instead of reactive.

One morning when I got out of bed and turned toward the bathroom, I cut a tad too close to the bed. My toe caught the leg of the footboard. !#%*^%$#*! Once the hollering and jumping around was over, I had a choice to make. I could feel very sorry for myself and climb back into bed. (Not a bad choice, but not particularly productive) Instead, I chose to chalk it up as an uncontrollable albeit unfortunate event and hobble on with my day.

Every day, you make decisions. Some like deciding to hobble on to work are minor. Other decisions influence the day significantly or may transform your life. Your daily decisions generally fall into two categories:

  • Reactive – You allow life’s events to control you.
  • Proactive – To the extent possible, you control the outcome.

Let me give you a familiar example of the first choice. Think about the time a rude motorist cut you off on the freeway. Perhaps you blew the horn, uttered a few choice phrases or banged on the steering wheel. Now take a mental step back and remember how your body actually felt. Your blood pressure rose and your muscles tensed. Maybe your stomach lurched.

Did the rude person cause your anger? Not really. Did you permit your reactions to the rudeness through your own choice? Sure. Here was an incident you had no control over. You allowed circumstances to dictate your undesired behavior. Yet you did have control over your response to this event. Remember: The person you allow to anger you, controls you.

Now let’s apply the second choice of maintaining control of circumstances you can change to the work environment. Think about managers you know. Some of them spend much of their time putting out fires, running from one dilemma to the next. These managers have little time to spare and always seem to be playing catch up. They are reacting to their world. Other managers handle work’s hiccups with grace and efficiency. These managers get more accomplished and actually have time to plan ahead and mentor employees. They are taking a proactive attitude in their world.

How much time do you spend planning your work? When you make a decision do you envision possible obstacles, which could slow down implementation?

How much of your budget have you set aside for training your people? Do you think long range? If the answers to these questions are none, never or no, it will be helpful to spend more time preparing and planning. If you find yourself spending too much time with fire extinguishers, consider becoming more proactive and plan ahead.

2. Be slow to anger—especially over petty issues.

I had difficulty coping with my teenage son. It seemed at times he went out of his way to “push my buttons. Consequently, I figuratively carried a big stick. I nagged my son about his behavior from early in the morning until bedtime. But the harder I pushed… the more issues arose that seemed to need pushing.

My wife compared my behavior to a national superpower using nuclear bombs to handle every conflict. She pointed out much of the behavior I blasted was what she called, “kid stuff.” Kid stuff did not warrant nuclear devastation, but rather a measured response.

This is a lesson every successful manager has learned. People are human.
Humans make mistakes. Most mistakes cause minor consequence to the company. If the issue is petty, the response should be a corrective action without undue emotion. Asking the employee in a neutral tone how the mistake happened is one way to explore better approaches. Sometimes instruction is needed or simply a reminder of existing procedures.

Occasionally a mistake creates serious problems for the business. You may be angry because the difficulty could have been avoided. It is very important your anger at the situation does not become an out of proportion personal attack on the employee responsible. People tend to respond in kind to us. It is appropriate to express your anger or frustration at a situation, but not at the individual. It is much more effective to make the employee your ally in seeking to resolve and prevent a recurrence.

To foster effective working relationships, be slow to anger. Treat minor incidents with the lack of emotional content they deserve. If a major mistake causes you frustration, do not vent your anger at the individual employee. And when an employee reacts with anger to a managerial intervention, do not respond in kind.

3. Instead of telling people they are wrong, point out mistakes indirectly.

Ben Franklin wrote in his autobiography how, in his younger years, he frequently corrected people publicly when they were wrong. What he found was although he was very logical and had facts on his side, he rarely persuaded anyone they were wrong. To make things worse, he noticed many of these men held grudges against him for years. While trying to help, he was making enemies.

In the business environment, managers who treat their employees like children will quickly learn Ben Franklin’s lesson. It is not effective to simply point out employee errors. Adults have choices (even if they are employees!) Employees who make mistakes are acting willfully. They may not appreciate the effect of their behavior, but in the vast majority of cases they are acting in good faith. It is the cause and effect connection that has not been made.

Your role as manager is to help employees see how their behaviors have created problems without treating them like children. Your end objective is to have employees make correct choices the next time. This is best accomplished by approaching the discussion indirectly. A good technique is to ask in a non-judgmental manner, “What happened?” Allow employees to discover how their actions contributed to the mistakes.

Ben Franklin learned from his mistakes and developed a number of skills from which we can learn. For instance, when someone stated an opinion that was in error, Mr. Franklin began responding with phrases such as, “In many cases, I would probably feel the same as you about this. However, if the facts of the situation were different…” He found people were more open to discussion and more receptive to his input when he applied this indirect approach.

Learn and implement these three not so easy steps through practice. Evaluate your responses to conflict and think about what you might have done differently. With time you will become the type of manager who handles conflict effectively and experiences less of it

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