How to Resolve Conflict in the Workplace

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Managing conflict is among leaders' least favorite tasks. But learning how to resolve conflict in the workplace can be done with the right strategies and skills.

headshot of DDI leadership expert Chris Helm, the special guest on this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, with a photo of two business professionals in a heated conversation in the background to show that this podcast is about how to resolve conflict in the workplace

A 480 PODCAST

How to Resolve Conflict in the Workplace

29 minutes | February 1, 2022

00:00:00 00:00

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In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, Chris Helm, DDI leadership expert, discusses how to resolve conflict in the workplace and specifically, strategies you can use as a leader to diffuse conflict on your team.

Beth Almes:        

Hi leaders. And welcome back to The Leadership 480 Podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes, and today's topic is the thing that most of us try to avoid as leaders, which is resolving conflict. 

For a lot of us, this is our least favorite task and the one that's most tempting to try to just avoid and maybe sweep under the rug until something blows up in our faces. Well, I think we've all had a story where we've tried to do that, and it's never a good idea. So today, we've invited DDI leadership expert, Chris Helm, to talk with us about some of the strategies leaders can use to resolve conflict. Chris, welcome to the show.

Chris Helm:         

Thanks Beth. It's a pleasure to be here.

Beth Almes:        

So you've coached and facilitated leadership development for hundreds, I don't know, dare I say thousands of leaders over time. How have you seen leaders react to having to manage conflict on their teams?

Chris Helm:         

Yeah. So this one comes up time and time again. It's one that I often find people are really, really curious about, and it shows just how anxious and nervous people can get about these conflict situations. So we train and we coach and we practice and prepare for those moments, but somehow it's still never really something we look forward to. We don't look forward to having to get involved in resolving conflict, be it one that we're involved in, or even one that someone in our teams involved in, yet it's a really important role for a leader. 

If I think just the other week, I had someone approach me about how to deal with the situation they were experiencing between two team members whose disagreements had just started to escalate and go beyond control. So what had seemed to be a fairly private conversation at first had started to spill over into team meetings and the effects of those unresolved conflicts were spilling over and really hurting team morale when other people were feeling the effects of it. It was sapping the positivity in the team.

So it was obvious that to me when I was talking to this leader that they'd adopted a bit of an avoid, or if I'm being kind, I might say a wait and see strategy. Sometimes you might get lucky and find that the wait and see strategy works. Other people find themselves pulled right in and they go right to the other extreme and they jump straight to mediating over really simple disagreements, or negotiating, or worse than that, ending up dictating in those situations. So we frequently see these two ends of the scale from abdicating to dictating, neither of which are effective ways to productively resolve a conflict.

Beth Almes:        

Oh, that's so interesting, Chris. And I'll mention that one of the things that has always struck me is I have conversations with just family members who, and I have a couple who are retired executives that talked about, they actually love the moment they stepped out of leadership, and it was because of conflict on their teams. And you're talking very high-level people in the company and they were excited to not have to be leaders anymore because they didn't want to manage these interpersonal conflicts. 

When you talk about that scale of how people react to it, do you see big differences, whether you're working with this as a frontline leader, or mid-level, or executive. Do you see a lot of that change as the level changes?

Chris Helm:         

That's a really good question. So I see a lot change depending on how good that leader is at dealing with the conflict. So when you start to train people on this, I think it's a fact that not many people really enjoy the situations of conflict. But you can learn some skills around it. And I've seen conflicts escalate just as much at an executive level as I have at a frontline level. And typically, you often see these things that people either try and dismiss it, or they try and crush it down, or seek conflict to something that's wrong. 

When I look at conflict, I think it's, there's nothing wrong with conflict when it's managed well, when someone in the room is just going to say, hey, that's an interesting point of view. Can we get a bit more curious about that and start people, start de-risking this and start getting people curious about other people's points of view, making people feel valued for having a different view on something, rather than those differences being something we need to disagree about?

Beth Almes:        

I really like where you're going with that. There's almost a healthy level of conflict on your team, and is that possible? Can you start to look at healthy conflict, or does it always mean that there's something wrong with you as a leader if you've got people who are fighting on your team?

Chris Helm:         

No way. A leader really shouldn't beat themselves up about conflict emerging in the course of work, this is just going to happen. If we try and push it down, or make people hide it, we're not going to get good outcomes. And seriously, when we explore this more, having zero conflict is not a realistic aim for a team. In fact, it's probably unhealthy. 

Having zero conflict and a high-performing team really isn't realistic, because conflict is natural. We're human. We interpret the world in different ways to each other. We overlay different value sets into things and people have complex tension. So, for me, it's obvious when we put a bunch of people together with different experiences, motivations, abilities, values, backgrounds, and we ask them to achieve difficult goals, we're going to end up and we're going to need a level of disagreement and debate, otherwise we're not going to solve complex problems.

So the differences we see between normal teams or underperforming teams versus high-performing teams is that high-performing teams have a way to work through those differences, and to work through those differences in a really productive and respectful way. 

I guess one thing that is consistent across those high-performing teams is that this resolution path is often instigated by the leader. So you won't see that leader making grand statements in a team meeting or a huddle, they'll be doing lots of their great work in the background, coaching others how to resolve the differences for themselves, helping others to take ownership, and understand how they're playing into the disagreement and how to find their own path out of it. 

Eventually, when you get a leader like that, others start to mimic that behavior and you see the teams around them asking the questions, leaning in more to where other people are coming from. So you really, you don't just manage to get to resolve a conflict, but you manage to leverage that benefit of difference in diversity.

Beth Almes:        

I was just going to ask you about diversity, really, Chris, because you talked about some of the reasons people come to conflict differently with they have different backgrounds, experiences, their different points of view. How do you feel conflict, how does it go hand in hand with diversity in a positive or a negative way?

Chris Helm:         

Yeah, I think a level of diversity is going to lead to, it's going to lead to differences in perspective. Now how we handle those differences in perspective will really dictate whether that ends up in an unresolved, unproductive conflict, or something that we can all learn from and come up with a better solution than those individuals on their own would ultimately come up with. 

There is a really strong piece in here about respect and about that old friend of ours, empathy. If people can lean into a situation more, understand where someone else is coming from, and actually show them that they understand them, that person will feel like they're on the same team. If we push away because of the differences, or simply state positions, we'll stay really far apart from each other. Because nobody's actually going that step further to say, hey, I think I understand you, or I'm not sure I understand you, but I really want to, if we're simply stating our positions, essentially you're stating to the other person, I don't want to understand you. I just want you to accept my point of view.

Beth Almes:        

So I like that concept. It's almost to the point of, if you don't have any conflict on your team, you might not have enough diversity. Everybody's thinking, agreeing, everybody all thinks the same way, which is never really a good outcome, but as a leader, how do you know when to leave things alone? It's time to let people work it out on their own, they're going to work through this? And when do you know it's gone too far, it's time for me to step in and do something about it?

Chris Helm:         

Yeah, it's interesting. Anything's possible here. So with a conflict it might resolve itself, or it might get worse. What I'd say is that one thing's always for sure, as a leader, you don't want to be leaving this to chance. You don't want to be thinking maybe this will sort itself out. I'll just see where it goes. 

You got to get a little bit closer to the situation when you see the signs. The more you look for this, the more you start to spot it, the more you analyze conflicts that have happened, and you play back, well, what was actually that crucial point in this? Where could I have helped? Where could I have helped someone to take ownership of this and to step into it themselves, the more you realize that those moments are way earlier than we typically end up stepping in.

I remember being part of a project team early in my career where there was some clear unresolved conflict between two individuals. We were really busy working long hours with tight deadlines. So the situation, it was ripe for some disagreement, but this went further than that. Two of those team members, they frequently disagreed and they started to express really strong frustrations with each other in front of the rest of the team, and on occasion, that would be to the point of exchanging insults. This just created a hugely, hugely toxic environment. 

So when I think of the hours that were wasted in conversation, whenever they left the room and everybody else just, ah, breathed and let it all out and we had the conversations, we were having the conversations about them rather than with them.

And at the time we were all on the team, there were quite a lot of junior people. We made our leader aware of this, but he was a guy who was working across a lot of projects. So we were left feeling like he didn't see the problem, he wasn't feeling the problem, and he was really busy elsewhere. As a result, we felt like we needed to do something about it. 

One of my teammates, a lady called Sarah, just came up with this great suggestion and just said, well, why don't we take turns in going for lunch with them? You go for lunch with one of them and I'll go for lunch with the other, and we'll just have a little conversation and find out what's going for them. And also help them understand that we've noticed, and that there is an impact on the rest of the team. And I'll be honest, it wasn't a hugely sophisticated approach, but it was what we had at the time. And we stumbled across actually something that worked well.

We'd spend most of those lunch breaks just listening, listening to what was going on for them, asking a few questions, helping them come up with some ideas for how they worked through it. And we noticed that the behavior started to change. The situation started to deescalate a little bit, because I think they felt listened to. And it was maybe even a little relief that they actually understood that other people had noticed. And we called it and said there's an impact on team performance here. None of them wanted to do that. Neither of them wanted to create a negative atmosphere for the team.

One thing I realized from that situation was that even if you don't know the correct way forward, the absolute right way forward, doing something is way better than doing nothing. So, when I reflect on that, I was incredibly impressed by Sarah's actions at the time to just take ownership and show more leadership than our nominated leader in that team, to be able to step in and start doing something differently. At the end of the day, if you want something to change, someone somewhere has got to do something different. And Sarah was the catalyst for that with strong leadership behaviors about actually, let's just go and listen to these people.

Beth Almes:        

That's such a great example of the informal leadership, helping to diffuse that situation, especially when it sounds like you were all in a pressure cooker together as you were going through that conflict. So as you look and you've seen and worked with leaders who are struggling with many different types of conflict, what are some of the things, the external factors that start to cause conflict on a team that maybe you could address as a leader?

Chris Helm:         

Yeah. Good question. So there's lots of things that can lead to the conflict. Typically, they're going to arise through miscommunication and misunderstanding. If we want to generalize the underlying problems, or catalysts that might already be there, you think about scarce resources, limited time, conflicting priorities, differences in personality and approach, cultural differences. I'd say none of those are the actual reason why the conflict occurs. They're just a simple difference at the start of a chain of events. 

Another thing to realize is that conflict doesn't just emerge as a full blown shouting match. It's often when people start to perceive it a lot more, it starts to go from the smaller contained environment into the wider team and business environment. The signs of sparks are there way before that, when people are unable to find a way through their disagreements.

Now, I often think of it when I say the signs of the sparks, it makes me think of the sparks on their own don't really do anything, but when there's some fuel for those sparks, then they can really take light and they can become something big. And these come from the behaviors of those involved. 

For example, in the previous situation I was talking about, there was a distinct lack of listening. People just stating positions and disagreeing over their positions. So it was a real lack of empathy and unwillingness to understand the other person's point of view, unwillingness to compromise. These are things that when the fuel, these are like the fuel that when put on that spark, they ignite. We've all heard people talk about biases and we often think, we know that some of our biases we've got to become more aware of them so that we can make better judgments on a daily basis. And our biases are in play here again.

As human beings, one of our earliest instincts that we develop is around spotting danger. And so this instinct bias, the words are often interchangeable, but this instinct often leads us to confuse different with danger. So left unchecked, we fall into the trap of rejecting things, things that we haven't had a hand in creating, we can then overlay our own value framework onto other people's decisions and judgments. That's going to lead to all sorts of unhelpful assumptions around why others are doing what they do. 

If I just look at other people doing what they do and I start to apply my own value framework to that, well, I might start to think that there's something wrong going on, or that they've got nefarious interests, and I should actually mistrust them. So, that's going to get in the way of people getting curious about ideas, and lead to other people shutting them down.

Actually, you got to understand that our instincts are telling us, watch out for the danger, close this down. Whereas if we can override that and start thinking, okay, this is interesting, this is different. How can I learn something from this? And start reframing that situation. We can step forward with some better behaviors.

Beth Almes:        

Oh, that's so interesting, especially about how bias starts to send our brains a little bit haywire about why people are doing things and the assumptions we make behind why they're doing those things. So when you're looking at this from the leader's perspective, how do you start addressing the situation, helping people start to see the other person's point of view without necessarily taking sides, things like that?

Chris Helm:         

I always say, as a leader, this is your key moment, isn't it? To be able to step in and provide some value. So we're recognizing unresolved conflict is going to lead to our whole load of constraint thinking, mistrust, lost productivity. You've got to do something, you've got to act. And I often think the first thing to do is that simple act of acknowledging it, letting people know you've noticed. Who doesn't like it when someone just states to them, I've noticed, actually shows that you care and that you are looking to help them find a solution? So you notice it, and make sure you're stating that you're keen to help them to resolve it. That's a real catalyst moment that actually sets someone a journey towards resolution.

I often think when you hold the mirror up to someone in such a way, it can often be a relief because they can get so caught up in it that it really does, it creates those stress responses. And they're not thinking about it, they're not thinking about the wider impact, they're just pushing as hard as they can to get to the outcome they know is right even if it's not right. 

I guess the risk here when we acknowledge and when we show our support, there's a risk here that you can get pulled in and that they can just think you're going to sort it out for them. And you probably could, most leaders could step in. They could have a good few conversations and they could make decisions for people, but there's a lot more at stake than that.

And I think sorting out other people's disagreements, doesn't really help them learn to do it for themselves. And there's a long term thing, it's just going to suck up a whole lot of time, a whole lot of your time every time there's a simple disagreement, and you've got more things to be doing than that. I guess it's the first stage showing that acknowledgement. 

When we look at the next step, they're going to need to find a way through. The fact that they haven't found a way through yet probably means they haven't worked that out. So you're going to need to help them find those solutions. Now I'm a big fan of looking at the resourcefulness of others from a coaching perspective. And if we go into there with the belief that they have the resources to sort this out productively for themselves, we'll always get to a better outcome.

This is where coaching comes in and helping them work out how they're going to play that conversation themselves. What role they're occupying in fueling this conflict, where they actually do align, what goals they're trying to meet that they share, and actually recognizing all those points of alignment and just help them create a much better way of working together. 

There's a concept called perceptual positioning that I've always quite liked in these situations. So people talk about helping others see each other's point of view. There's also a really powerful thing about helping them see another person's point of view. So we've got the two people caught up in a disagreement there and all this disruption.

And if you get them to leverage that third party perspective, just asking how might a third party onlooker view this situation, they can often really start to elevate themselves outside that conflict situation and recognize that there's no fault, there's just a difficult situation. And they can come up with different ways to solve it.

Beth Almes:        

That's such a helpful perspective, taking the leader out of the position, it's certainly not in the position to say, Chris, here's what Beth was thinking, and I'm the mediator who's interpreting everybody's feelings for them to explain them to you, but to say, why do you think this is happening? What do you think an objective observer would say about this situation? What would they see here? A really powerful way to deescalate some of the emotions here too, of not you or me, or someone else, but what would an observer say? I really like that a lot. 

Are there times when you just aren't going to be able to resolve this? When do you know something big has to change, or someone has to leave the team? Have you seen that happen often, or is it typically the case that you can get past this?

Chris Helm:         

I have seen it happen. This is a difficult one. I have seen it happen. I often think if it's going to get to the stage where someone's leaving the team, there's often other reasons that are fueling it. So sometimes, it might be that it's just the right time for that person to leave the team. We're seeing way more in organizations the matrix structures, people moving between project teams and things being quite fluid. We see this more and more. 

And where I've seen it the most is during, on organizational restructure, or in post-merger integration, change of ownership situations, where the fundamental purpose of that team has shifted, yet there's still an intact team for the moment, or they've got a whole lot of new people coming into the team. There's just a bit of positioning that always happens as we're reforming as a team.

What we realize is that there's been change in purpose, maybe a difference if we were to revisit the values of that team, or what's needed to make that team successful, or things have changed, yet the values and the drivers of those individuals, or they haven't changed. So all of a sudden people are being asked to hit new goals, collaborate in different ways with different stakeholders. And it just gets really confusing. Before you know it, people are pushing back, conflicts are arising on the simplest of things, partly because the change has been forced on them. 

I fully believe that people inherently want to do a good job. They want to bring their best selves to work. And it's a leader's responsibility to get them there. And I've certainly never encountered anyone who actually turned up to work trying to do their very worst each day. That's a situation I've never encountered.

Ultimately, you've got to say a leader's got to stay close, and especially in those situations articulated where there's been a lot of change, stay close to people to understand what's going on for them, finding the right alignment for the team, the business, your customers. It's not always going to result in perfect alignment for each individual in that intact team. Helping people see that and work through it in the right way is a critical part of a leader's role. 

And when I've seen this managed really well, it's been done with a lot of mutual respect, and nobody's been setting off with huge conclusions about what the outcome is, but people along the way have come to the conclusion that being part of that team's maybe not the right thing. And they've had good productive conversations about, well, what would be the right thing?

Everyone's got a lot of awareness about the situation, the conversations are happening, and they've got the tools to deal with it. And that's ultimately what we want. Obviously you could imagine the situations where they're not well managed and you end up with that conflict just staying and festering in the team. And you're never going to have a high-performing team that way. So I guess just reiterating that role of the leader to get closer to the situation, open it up, acknowledge it, have those conversations, and really coach people to make good decisions for themselves.

Beth Almes:        

That's great, Chris. And I think getting to that heart of the why these things are happening, whether it's really something else that's affecting it, whether it's really change that's causing people to feel this way. There's so much more usually at the root of this conflict than just two people not getting along. 

So last, I have a question that I ask all of our guests on the show. Can you share with me a moment of leadership that changed your life, for good, or for bad? Can be something that inspired you, or said, well, I want to never do something like that so I'll do things differently.

Chris Helm:         

Oh, that's such a huge question. I see we've gone through the small talk, we're ready for the big talk now. You know what? I think that I've just been so privileged to work with so many people who have really cared about leadership. So whatever discipline they've been in, they've really had a care, a respect for that discipline of leadership. And some study it through their work, some study it as the actual job that they do. 

One stands out and it's actually outside my professional domain. So, I'll give you this one. It was actually, I used to do a lot of martial arts. I started training in, I think judo when I was nine. I did karate after that, and Muay Thai, a whole lot of other things. I used to love martial arts, it's really good, for anybody listening who's ever thought about doing it, it's just an amazing release for your mind, as well as a great physical activity.

But I trained in quite a few disciplines over the years and coming up to my late twenties, I refound my original karate style of Shukokai. And this was a style I'd done from the age of 11 through to about 18, 19. And I'd loved it. And I'd graded up to quite a high level, but it had been over 10 years by this point before I'd actually done a grading for a new belt. 

I was having a conversation with my Sensei at the club I trained at in London and he was talking about me doing my next grading, which was going to be my third and black belt grading. And I was a bit nervous about this and I distinctly remember saying, yeah, yeah, I'm going to train hard over the next six months. And I'm going to see if I'll be ready to take it in a year's time. Feeling pretty confident that, I knew how tough it was, but feeling pretty confident that I give myself a year's run up. I can do this. I'm going to do this, I'm going to train hard and I'll be fine.

And I just remember him looking me in the eye and saying, great, you're going to grade in three months then. And this moment, it really struck me because I was totally disarmed by this. I was expecting a little bit of a negotiation, something else in there, but he just fixed me with this look. And what I realized in that moment is he'd shown so much belief in me where I hadn't shown it in myself. I thought I needed a year. He just told me he knew I could do it too, he just knew I could do it quicker. 

He probably knew I needed a bit of a nudge, that I was talking too much. I was saying, yeah, give me a year. And I just needed this nudge. And he was creating some tension to make things happen so I could have pushed back, but he'd introduced that little bit of tension there.

It was tough, and it was really tough training for it and, but I got there and I passed it and I was super proud of achieving that. But it's something that stuck with me ever since to look to create challenge for others, show them you believe in them and support them along the way.

Beth Almes:       

Oh, that's an excellent story, but it does make me realize I started this conversation all wrong, we should have been talking about resolving conflict through martial arts the whole time, but train your whole team in martial arts and they can figure it out that way. Thank you so much, Chris, for being here today on The Leadership 480 Podcast, it was a pleasure.

Chris Helm:         

Thank you so much, Beth.

Beth Almes:        

And thank you to our listeners who took part of their 480 minutes today to be with us, and remember to make every moment of leadership count.