Those of us that lead know all too well that each and every day brings about a new challenge when it comes to leading people and teams. Regardless of a persons’ ability in the leadership arena, it takes guts to be a leader as it’s far easier to be part of the staff than step out and stand on your own. Leadership and its challenges come in a variety of forms and the method of leadership you choose when confronted with a challenge makes or breaks the outcome. That’s a lot of pressure for a leader, especially when you are faced with a difficult situation. Leadership is an evolving art form, incredibly difficult to master and has a tendency to remind us often how hard leadership is based on the mistakes we make. One thing is for certain, leadership is synonymous with conflict.
If conflict (or conflict resolution for that matter) is a natural part of being a leader, why is it so many leaders have a difficult time dealing with it? For starters, few people enjoy conflict. Life isn’t enjoyable, cheery or delightful when you’re neck deep in conflict on the daily. It’s only natural that we have an innate tendency to steer clear of conflict, especially if it isn’t a life or death situation. Unfortunately when we avoid conflict, especially in the workplace, it makes things worse as those conflicts have a tendency to fester, growing in size and organizational impact.
Another reason conflict is difficult to deal with is because you are dealing with people’s emotions, ideologies and perceptions. We might not agree with them, or understand it for that matter, but the mark of being a good leader is setting aside your personnel beliefs and listening to the other person, truly hearing them out. If we can’t listen and try to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person(s), coming to a resolution is nearly impossible as one party will often feel as if they weren’t heard or that they agreed to something they didn’t believe in in the first place.
Luckily if you step into conflict resolution with a strategy you’re far more likely to come out on the back end with a successful resolution. The five keys to successful conflict resolution are as follows:
Key #1 – Address Conflict Head On
Great leaders go into conflict willingly, not with the idea they’re going to change the world, but with the idea that they are going to listen and engage the people involved in an empathetic and caring manner. When we choose to face adversity we have a better chance of coming out on the other end with a successful resolution, happier colleagues and a healthier work environment.
Key #2 - Seek to Understand Before Being Understood
If you go into a difficult situation with your mind made up on ‘who did what’ it’s likely you’ll miss the bigger picture and leave your employees feeling like they weren’t heard, as if their side of the story doesn’t matter. Withholding your personnel feelings in these moments is tough, but a necessity. When we hear out everyone involved before coming to a conclusion we greatly increase our chance for making the right decision. Knowledge is power; when you've taken the time to hear out all sides involved in the situation before making a decision you establish an environment of respect as you gave each person or party an opportunity to speak their peace. I humbly thank my former boss and mentor Beau Pack who taught me this valuable lesson.
Key #3 – Everyone in One Room
I made a vital mistake early on in my leadership career in this department. I thought I was doing the right thing by listening to each party involved, individually, in the conflict I was attempting to mediate before making a decision. What I didn't realize in the moment but knew all to well afterwards was that my failure in successfully resolving this particular conflict occurred because I didn't bring everyone into the same room at the same time to squash the ‘he said, she said’ back and forth. If you’re attempting to resolve a conflict between two parties and their stories are completely different from one another, or their account for their part in the situation differs from what’s being said on the other side, bring them both in for an open discussion. When people have to speak up in front of the other person the conflict exists with you may find that their tune changes as they can’t make accusations that don’t add up or may be exaggerated. As the old saying goes, “there are three sides to every story - her side, his side and the truth”.
Key #4 - Seek Advice
Let’s face it, no matter how good of a leader you are there will be times where obtaining advice from outsiders is beneficial. A leader who asks for help, advice, or perspective from others shows the courage and willingness to want to make the right decisions. The key piece here is if you are going to seek advice on a sensitive situation it must be done from someone uninvolved, preferably outside the organization. This way you limit the blow back from internal gossip or side talk that occurs on the regular at the water cooler. Outside feedback is valuable as people who are uninvolved often provide clarity or perspective that is difficult to see when you’re at ground zero in the middle of the conflict.
Key #5 – Explain Your Decision & Ask for Feedback
When dealing with conflict resolution, once you come to the point where a decision is necessary it is vital to explain the WHY behind your decision to the people or parties involved. Once you have explained to everyone involved what your decision is you should then seek their feedback to better understand how it landed with those involved. Be prepared! It’s possible not everyone will be thrilled with your decision, but if you explain the process you took to come to that conclusion and stick to your guns thereafter you show that your ability to resolve conflict is one of process and care for each party involved.
Conflict resolution is a necessary part of being a leader. The more we willingly involve ourselves in conflict and the process it takes to navigate to a resolution the better you’ll be as a leader in dealing with conflict the next time around.
About the Author
Travis Smith is the founder and managing director of Square-1 Engineering, a life sciences consulting firm, providing end to end technical project services to companies which design, develop and or manufacture products in Southern California. He successfully served the life sciences marketplace in SoCal for over 15 years specializing in engineering services, consulting, project outsourcing and leadership development. In 2019 he was recognized as a ‘40 Under 40’ honoree by the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce as a top leader in Orange County, CA.