5 Strategies for Resolving Employee-Manager Conflict

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Conflict in the workplace is inevitable: Opposite personalities clash, stress is prevalent, perceptions of situations vary, and viewpoints differ—all of which contribute to tension and disagreement. Knowing how to manage these situations effectively is key to keeping productivity and morale high.

Avoiding conflict or mismanaging it comes at a high cost to organizations. According to one report, employees in the United States spend 2.8 hours per week on workplace conflict, resulting in $359 billion in lost time.

“Unfortunately, employees and managers tend to avoid conflict because they either don’t want to deal with it or they aren’t properly trained to do so,” says Adrienne Isakovic, a lecturer for Northeastern University’s Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communication program. “Their instinct is to default to the human resources department even though they shouldn’t. It’s an avoidance mechanism.”

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Avoiding conflict ultimately results in chaos. Human beings are emotional creatures with trigger points and biases that have developed through various experiences. Allowing these filtering mechanisms to dominate when conflicts arise is a recipe for disaster.

“That’s when you get chaos,” Isakovic says. “Office politics come into play, you have accusations of unequal treatment, and biases can run rampant. You need to have processes and mechanisms in place that can be used to take the emotions out of equations so you can seek out the fundamental issue and what you can do to address it.”

While it’s HR’s responsibility to share and train managers on effective conflict-resolution strategies, it’s not their responsibility to resolve all workplace issues, Isakovic adds. Instead, HR should encourage managers to work through conflicts with their employees on their own, and only involve HR when absolutely necessary.

“HR shouldn’t be involved in every conflict because then they become the police station at the company—and that’s not their role,” she says.

Here are five strategies to help managers effectively resolve conflicts with employees.

1) Detach from Your Biases

One essential quality that all managers need to develop is a strong sense of self-awareness. Managers need to acknowledge their own biases, trigger points, and preconceptions, otherwise it’s difficult to rise above them to identify what the actual problem is.

“If managers can’t adequately describe themselves and how they see the world, they won’t be able to enact strategies to see the other perspectives,” Isakovic says. “Managers can’t truly assess a situation without detaching from their biases. Having that self-awareness is critical.”

This also means being aware of how you react, both physically and emotionally, to situations involving conflict. According to the National Institutes of Health, the most common responses to approaching conflict include:

  • Avoidance: When someone recognizes conflict in a situation and decides to disengage from the problem
  • Accommodation: Also referred to as yielding, it occurs when a conflict is resolved, but an individual’s needs aren’t met. If an individual is consistently accommodating, resentment may affect the relationship.
  • Compromise: When two parties of equal power agree to a resolution
  • Collaboration: Working with others to find a solution in which everyone has their needs met

Avoiding a conflict, for example, might be effective when the issue is minor, but it isn’t prudent when a major conflict arises. Each response has a place, but you need to understand your reactions in the context of which method is most effective.

2) Actively Listen 

When a conflict arises, managers need to block out urges to formulate their responses and simply listen instead.

“It’s something we’re all guilty of in emotionally charged situations: As the other person is talking, we’re already preparing what we’re going to say in response,” Isakovic says. “You need to actively listen, and even if it takes you 30 seconds after they have finished talking to respond, that’s fine.”

You should be actively listening from a place of empathy, too, she adds. While you don’t necessarily need to agree with the employee, you need to put yourself in their shoes and acknowledge that they have a different perspective than you.

To improve your active listening, avoid distractions in your office like checking your email on your computer, peeking at your smartphone, or fiddling with papers on your desk. Be aware of your body language; avoid folding your arms or glancing at the clock. Ask questions to make sure you’re understanding what they’re saying, and repeat their message back to them to ensure you’re both on the same page.

3) Practice Empathy

Empathy refers to a person’s ability to understand feelings through verbal and nonverbal messages, provide emotional support to people when needed, and understand the links between others’ emotions and behaviors.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, showing empathy toward your employees is key to establishing a trusting relationship. It’s also a leadership skill that most managers struggle with: Only 40 percent demonstrate empathy effectively, SHRM says.

During an employee-manager conflict, it’s important for managers to acknowledge the employee’s feelings and understand where they’re coming from, Isakovic says.

4) Focus on the Behavior

During conflict resolution, never focus your words on the person, Isakovic says. If you’re mediating a workplace behavior issue, for example, your focus should be on the behavior, and not the person responsible for the behavior.

“A person can choose to behave in any way they wish, even if it’s not reflective of their personal beliefs or attitudes,” Isakovic says. “Don’t enter a discussion calling into question the employee’s values or beliefs.”

You might say, for example, “The behavior in today’s meeting was unacceptable,” instead of, “Your behavior in today’s meeting was unacceptable.”

5) Know When to Involve HR 

Managers should exhaust their conflict resolution toolkit and rely on the organization’s in-place policies and procedures first before involving HR, Isakovic says. If there’s a conflict about workplace behavior, for example, the manager should refer to the employee handbook or code of conduct, then seek to resolve conflicts as best as they can within the framework of what’s expected in the organization.

“If a manager is expecting an employee to make decisions autonomously and get work done more independently, but the employee is being told what to do all the time, refer to the company’s value statement,” Isakovic says. “Note that, within it, it says that the organization places a high value on innovation and self-sufficiency. That takes the personal issue out of it.”

It’s also important to note whether the conflict is ongoing and not just a one-time situation, Isakovic says. Make sure you document these conversations and, if necessary, reach out to HR to draw up a performance improvement plan.

“If a simple conversation isn’t going to solve the problem, get HR involved so they can help guide and craft an appropriate plan, and set timelines for expectations,” she says.

Of course, if the conflict is one in which a policy has been violated egregiously—like an employee insulting another employee—then HR should be involved immediately.

“Conflict resolution is one of the hardest competencies to find and develop in managers and leaders because it’s not fun, and people avoid it,” she says. “But to be a highly successful manager or leader, you need to be able to get in there, not shy away from conflict, and work toward a proper solution.”

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