5 Actions to Lead Your Group Through Conflict

Tim NickelConflict Resolution, Leadership0 Comments

You didn’t sign up to be an HR specialist!  Worse, a babysitter!!  Conflict can be the most vexing part of managing groups.

A manager recently exclaimed, “This group will be the death of me!  Why can’t they just act like adults?!”  They are adults, though.  And further, they are adults like you and me.  We’ve all been there.  Remember when you were in conflict – a real burner of a conflict.  I would put money on it you said a thing or two you regret. While conflict can bring out the worst in us, it is also one of the most intense stimulants of growth.

John Radford, from Royal Roads University, asserts that “an organization’s capacity to handle conflict is directly proportional to how well it performs on measurable outcomes.” Here are five fundamental actions to increase your group’s capacity for conflict.

1. Don’t Panic

Douglass Adams, in his absurd novel A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, advises calmly: Don’t Panic.  Employees want you to drop everything and join their crisis.  Most people, when faced with conflict, want to either squash it quickly or avoid it, hoping it will take care of itself.  Take a deep breath and radiate a confident mindset.  If you take a step back and view conflict with some distance, you start to understand it as something other than a raging monster.

Feelings are contagious.  Be the leader that helps others be calm.  Still, show you understand their issues to be important.  Being calm and attentive will powerfully model the way you want them to act through the process of resolution.  They will appreciate your steadiness while they feel the floor shaking.  Your calm mind will also help you think clearly when taking your next steps: assessing the conflict and facilitating the growth of your group.

2. Assess the Conflict

You might be tempted, when the volume rises, to “fix” the conflict quickly.  “Nip it in the bud,” they say.  Just make sure they are the right buds.

Your first step in leading groups through conflict is to understand it.  Three areas of understanding will give you a good start:

  • The history of the conflict: How long have the issues persisted? What are the critical incidents? Who is involved? While listening to people, take note of the answers to these questions and you will piece together a cohesive idea of the group’s escalation.
  • The type of conflict: Conflict can have many causes. While interpersonal conflict might be the source of escalation, it can result from factors such as work flow gaps or bottlenecks, poor information or performance issues.
  • The scope of the conflict: Rarely is a conflict just between two people. Small group conflicts often persist beyond the resolution of the problems between the initial two.  Some larger groups can establish norms of disrespectful behaviour that cause frequent and highly escalated conflict for years.  Whole organizations have shown unhealthy cultures that need major change efforts.

It is wise to dedicate time early in the story to analyze what is happening.

3. Clarify Roles

When a relationship becomes unstable, as in conflict, people seek ways to stabilize.  They find someone who will agree with them and rush to save the day.  The person in authority is often the first person people turn to, hoping for a rescue from an intolerable situation.

However, taking their side and trying to solve the problem yourself is fraught with danger.  You risk alienating others.  Further, you send the implicit message that:

  1. They cannot handle their own conflict.
  2. Some are blameless.
  3. Conflict is so dangerous, only people with authority can handle it.

Instead, you need to validate the impact on them and acknowledge their emotions while studiously resisting their invitation to judge.  Explore the impacts of the events and uncover their interests.  Soon they will feel calmer and have a better sense of their environment and their role in it.  The people in conflict themselves must engage in the difficult work of resolving conflict together.

4. Involve Your Team

Some managers feel like a failure if they don’t handle personnel matters on their own.  Set your ego aside on this one! Do not venture into major group conflict alone. On the contrary, your organization probably has specialists with key bodies of knowledge and honed skills to help.  Your upper level managers are there with the experience and authority you might lack.  Communicating frequently with a team will:

  • Provide a check and balance for your own role in the conflict. Others outside the conflict can hold up a mirror to show you how you might be impacting the group.
  • Give you courage. Conflict can be intimidating and disheartening.  A team can “have your back” and confirm the good decisions you are making.  Alternatively, being accountable to a team will help motivate you to resist the temptation to avoid and procrastinate.
  • Catch your mistakes. More eyes can catch your mistakes that will hamper resolution efforts.
  • Provide expertise. Together, internal specialists like Human Resources, Labour Relations and legal professionals have extensive knowledge and skills in areas no one person can be expected to have. External persons like mediators and consultants often have the added edge of being perceived as objective and can have a much easier time establishing the rapport needed for deeper influence.
5. Take Care of Yourself

If you ask people what their most difficult periods of life are, many will describe their stories of conflict.  Conflict between people can cause high anxiety in groups.  Make sure you are tending to the balance in your life, both at home and work.  Make sure you get enough sleep and connect with the people in your home life who bring you fulfillment.  However, only you know what works for you.  Pay attention to your warning signs of burnout and stress and set aside time to plan for your own well-being.  You cannot help those in your group if you yourself are becoming unhealthy.

Pay attention to these five fundamentals to shape your approach to resolving group conflict. With thoughtful preparation, group conflict work can be a catalyst for resolution, healthy change and a successful organization.

Tim Nickel
Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance

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