Understanding the manager’s role in conflict resolution

The burden on managers – Gartner survey insights

Managers often find themselves at the centers of conflict resolution within their teams. A Gartner survey revealed a striking figure: 56% of managers perceive themselves as the primary figures responsible for resolving conflicts among team members. This sense of responsibility persists irrespective of their training or preparedness in handling such disputes. 

Many managers might not have received formal training in conflict resolution, yet they face the expectation to navigate these challenging situations. The survey’s findings highlight a gap in managerial training programs, where conflict resolution is not always a focus, leaving managers to rely on their instincts or improvised methods to address disputes.

Political discussions as conflict starters

Emily Rose McRae, a senior director analyst at Gartner, highlights the impact of political discussions in the workplace, identifying them as a key source of conflict. Here are three critical aspects of how political discussions can become conflict catalysts in the workplace:

  • Diversity of political opinions: Workplaces are melting pots of diverse political beliefs and opinions, in contrast to personal social circles where individuals often interact with those who share similar views. This diversity in the workplace can be a fertile ground for clashes as employees encounter viewpoints that differ from their own.
  • Escalation during political high tides: Political discussions tend to intensify during periods of heightened political activity, such as election seasons. These times can see an escalation in workplace conflicts, with discussions potentially becoming more charged and divisive.
  • Challenge for managers: Dealing with these sensitive political discussions poses a challenge for managers. They must balance the need to address conflicts arising from political discourse without alienating team members or suppressing open dialogue. This delicate balancing act maintains a harmonious workplace environment while respecting individual viewpoints.

The impact of remote and hybrid work on conflicts

With remote and hybrid work models being broadly adopted, the nature of workplace conflicts has seen a transformation. In traditional office settings, casual interactions often provide a breeding ground for misunderstandings or offhand comments that could escalate into conflicts. 

Remote and hybrid work environments, by reducing these day-to-day interactions, might lead to fewer instances of such casual conflicts. Yet, they also present a unique challenge: the diminished opportunities for team members to build rapport and understanding. 

Without regular face-to-face interactions, there’s a risk of eroding the goodwill and mutual tolerance that often help in smoothing over minor disagreements. Managers in remote and hybrid settings must therefore deal with a new set of challenges in conflict resolution, often without the benefit of physical cues and the informal resolution opportunities that an office environment provides.

Strategies for conflict management

Conflict management training should be an ongoing process

Organizations are recognizing the pressing need for structured conflict management training. Managers often find themselves amid team disputes without the necessary tools or strategies to address them effectively. 

To bridge this gap, the introduction of specialized training programs in conflict resolution is becoming increasingly recognized as beneficial. Such programs can equip managers with a variety of techniques and approaches to handle disputes constructively. 

Practical learning experiences, such as shadowing seasoned leaders and engaging in coaching sessions, can provide new managers with valuable insights into handling real-world conflicts. These opportunities allow them to observe and learn from the experiences and methods of established leaders, thereby enhancing their conflict-resolution skills.

The Thomas Kilmann conflict mode instrument

The Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), developed by The Myers-Briggs Company, is a powerful and practical tool for managers seeking to build their conflict resolution skills. Here’s how TKI helps in understanding and adapting conflict resolution styles:

Categorization of conflict styles 

TKI divides conflict resolution approaches into five distinct styles:

  • Competing: Characterized by assertiveness and a lack of cooperation, this style focuses on winning the dispute.
  • Avoiding: This approach involves being unassertive and uncooperative, essentially steering clear of the conflict.
  • Accommodating: In this style, a person is unassertive yet cooperative, placing the needs of others above their own.
  • Compromising: Aiming for a middle ground, this style balances assertiveness with cooperation.
  • Collaborating: Marked by both assertiveness and cooperation, this approach seeks solutions that satisfy all parties involved.

Reflection of personality and behavior

Each conflict resolution style mirrors a person’s inherent personality traits and behavioral tendencies. Understanding these styles allows managers to recognize their natural inclinations when dealing with conflicts.

Adaptation to various situations

By identifying their default conflict resolution style with TKI, managers can learn to adapt their approach to different conflict scenarios. This adaptability is key to achieving more effective and harmonious resolution outcomes in a range of situations, enhancing overall team dynamics and productivity.

Psychological safety and civility in the workplace

Matt Summers from the NeuroLeadership Institute brings attention to the concepts of psychological safety and civility as foundational elements in conflict management. Psychological safety refers to an environment where team members feel secure to express their thoughts and opinions, even when these involve discomfort or disagreement. In such a setting, individuals trust that conflicts can be resolved respectfully and civilly. 

Establishing psychological safety in the workplace is about creating a culture where open communication is encouraged, and differences are navigated respectfully. Civility is key here, as it involves maintaining respectful and polite interactions, even amidst disagreements. 

Together, psychological safety and civility create a workplace atmosphere conducive to healthy, constructive conflict resolution, where employees feel valued and heard, and disputes are managed in a manner that respects all parties involved.

Shared responsibility in resolving workplace conflicts

A collective approach to managerial duties

In the context of workplace conflict resolution, it’s important to recognize that the responsibility extends beyond managers. A collective approach is key here, involving every team member in maintaining a harmonious and productive work environment. Here are three points to consider:

Contribution of each team member: Every individual in the team shapes the workplace atmosphere and dynamics. It’s not just the managers who lead the charge in conflict resolution; every team member should actively engage in civil interactions. This collective effort helps in creating a more cohesive work environment.

Shared responsibility for conflict resolution: All employees should be equipped with basic conflict resolution skills. Understanding the impact of one’s actions and communications on colleagues is a part of this. When team members are aware and considerate of how they interact with others, it leads to a more respectful and cooperative work environment. This shared responsibility eases the burden on managers and allows for more effective and repeatable resolutions.

Proactive role in conflict prevention and resolution: Each team member should not only be reactive in dealing with conflicts but also proactive in preventing them. This requires being mindful of potential conflict triggers and working collaboratively to address issues before they escalate. A proactive approach here contributes to a smoother and more productive team dynamic.

Fostering a culture of openness and respect

Creating a workplace culture where diverse opinions are expressed respectfully is fundamental to preempting and managing conflicts. Such a culture is built on the principles of openness and respect, where employees feel safe to voice their ideas and concerns without fear of retribution or disrespect. In an open and respectful environment, disagreements are viewed as opportunities for learning and growth rather than threats. 

Encouraging open dialogue and active listening helps in understanding different perspectives and finding common ground. Managers should model these behaviors and set the tone for respectful interactions, but all employees have a part to play. Regular training and reinforcement of these values can help in ingraining them into the workplace culture. 

When team members feel respected and heard, the likelihood of conflicts escalating into unmanageable situations decreases, leading to a more harmonious and productive workplace.

Tim Boesen

February 19, 2024

6 Min