Managing Conflict: How a Leader Can Handle Difficult Conversations
“The character of a man is known from his conversations” – Menander, Greek dramatist
Conflict management is an extremely important leadership skill. The only way out of a conflict is through a difficult conversation, and holding one requires ability and foresight. People quit bosses, not companies. Vantedge Search is committed to ensuring the candidates we place are successful and have the leadership soft skills in addition to the hard skills required.
Given the times we are in, managing workplace conflict is more challenging than ever before. Macroeconomic uncertainties, fears of a recession, layoffs, economic insecurity, and soaring inflation have created potent flashpoints.
Conflicts put a healthy workplace culture at stake. The first casualty is communication. Some leaders avoid addressing the issue, letting the wound fester. The lack of communication creates a dysfunction that saps the energy, according to Dr. Paul Marciano, a psychologist and author of Let’s Talk About It: Turning Confrontation into Collaboration at Work, quoted in an article published in Forbes in March 2021.
The need is to manage the disagreement or conflict prudently. This is where leadership skills come into play – how to turn a potential confrontation into collaboration through meaningful conversations.
Proof of the problem lies in the numbers
Workplace conflicts strike at employee engagement and work culture. It puts workers’ health at stake, with serious implications for talent attraction and retention. Productivity suffers in an unhealthy and conflict-prone work environment.
Conflict at Work, released in October 2022 by The Myers-Briggs Company, a California-based global provider of people development solutions, lists interesting stats on conflict. The global study on conflict management at work, cited in an article in PR Newswire, shows that workplace conflict is increasingly becoming common.
- Nearly 36% of people now deal with conflict either often, very often or daily (up from 29% in its previous study in 2008).
- Poor communication is the top factor behind conflict for in-office workers. Those on hybrid schedules cite lack of transparency as the key reason.
- Dealing with conflict at the workplace dents job satisfaction.
The underlying need, therefore, is to keep communication flowing. And this means having tough conversations.
Start by defining
A difficult conversation is defined as one where the parties concerned have contrarian views about issues with high stakes. Emotions run high because of stress, anxiety, and fear. Communicating becomes tough.
At the workplace, there could be several types of difficult conversations that leaders may need to have with their teams. Some examples include conveying layoff, explaining change in roles and responsibilities, giving constructive feedback during performance appraisal or otherwise, and conversations around behavioral issues.
Navigating through tough conversations: The checklist for a leader
Conflict management, including having tough conversations, is a soft skill.Laura Smith Dunaief, a Certified Professional in Training Management, a Training Industry Courses instructor, and founder and chief learning officer at CareerCraft, shares interesting insights. Cited in an August 2022 article by Training Industry, a provider of information, insights and resources for professional development, she says it is imperative for leaders to articulate the message. This will help others hear and absorb them. Leaders must also be prepared to hear and consider fresh perspectives.
- Train to prepare for the extraordinary–learning never exhausts. The role of training is irrefutable in developing human-centric skills. This applies equivocally to you and to all senior executives and line or reporting managers.
In discussion with your CHRO and other senior executives, prepare a framework around relevant foundational soft skill training programs on active listening, empathy, and emotional intelligence. You could add negotiating skills too—these come handy in conflict resolution.
Training prepares you to face tough conversations. It shapes the mindset to address emotions, not avoid it. You learn how to keep a check on emotional responses, which prevents the conversation from derailing.
Ensure participation is mandatory for one and all, especially for reporting managers. Training should be a year-round exercise, not a onetime project.
In a TrainingIndustry.com article of April 2022, Scott Simmons, CEO of leadership trainer Ariel, mentions three best practices leaders can adopt to enhance emotional intelligence. These are focusing on listening to understand rather than solve; prioritizing the audience’s objectives and challenges/issues over focusing solely on own goals and priorities; and being genuine (having the courage to express vulnerabilities).
You could also invest in courses on conflict management. These cover several aspects, such as addressing and de-escalating conflicts, techniques to deal with emotions or complaints, traps to avoid in difficult conversation, and how to mediate in tense situations involving board members or executives.
- Wisdom is with those who receive guidance: Delivering difficult conversations is challenging. Incisive guidance from seasoned professionals will complement your skill enhancement efforts.
Some executive search firms specialize in executive coaching and development. They offer incisive mentoring services for leadership development on a range of topics, including conflict management. These executive talent search firms provide customized services and solutions to meet the requirement of agile and responsive leadership. Vantedge Search is one of those firms.
They employ bespoke personality assessments and proprietary tools and techniques. These deliver incisive insights on self-awareness, including understanding own personality type, strengths, ways to improve communication, leadership development, etc.
Leveraging their services, you can become a better leader. Your managers can become better leaders too and develop the behavioral competencies required as part of leadership skills.
- Are you ready to take the plunge? No tough conversation should be rushed into without due diligence. Have a detailed knowledge of the circumstances leading to the conversation. Diving in without assessing the depth, you could crash.
Try to understand the mindsets of the people involved. If you know them individually, you may have an idea of their thinking process. But if you don’t know, talk discreetly to their peers to gauge their mindset, or to other senior executives to enhance your understanding.
Extremely important—understand your personality type, or the style of your leadership. This will help you see how others may perceive you. You can then frame the conversation to reach out to them.
Know your vulnerabilities. If you feel you may fumble, rehearse the conversations. If required, make a note of the talking points. Visualize the scenarios that may play out, especially if you need to address a senior executive.
Do the due diligence and have data by your side. It is difficult to refute empirical proof. For instance, if you need to address behavioral issues, say passive-aggressive behavior by a line manager reporting to you. Documentation has to be thorough to point out the exact instances.
They may take refuge byciting “subjective” or “overtly emotional response” of the aggrieved individual. As a leader, pre-empt probable reactions and how will respond to these.
As a preventive measure, proactively include what is “acceptable behavior” in your employee policy manual and ensure it is circulated company-wide.
By spreading awareness and taking a proactive approach towards addressing the root cause, you would have eliminated a conflict.
- Lend them your ears before lending a helping hand. Most of the times, we talk more and listen less. Listening provides insights into the other person’s thinking; it helps you ask the right questions and address concerns.
Follow the listening etiquette. Mobile phones or other devices can be distracting. Put them on silent mode if you need to. Undivided attention reflects genuine interest.
Express your involvement in the conversation through non-verbal cues. With conversations often happening in a virtual setup, body language, such as eye contact and sitting posture, will show how attentive you are.
Listening with an open mind especially helps when soliciting for suggestions. Often leaders are blinded by their passion for taking a certain approach in taking the company forward. Not listening to contrary opinions can prove detrimental.
Patience and awareness for accommodating different views can help you avoid the pitfalls. Hear the other person objectively. Keep your emotions and opinions separate. Absorb before forming opinions. Questions will arise. Make a note of them. You can discuss these thereafter.
Listening is difficult. It needs practice. Cultivate the habit.
- Do you unleash words like loose cannons? Be very careful when you make your point, or when you respond. Articulation or the lack of it will make or break the deal, respectively.
For example, during constructive feedback, do not jump immediately on the course correction required. Set the stage by discussing the positives the person brings or is likely to add, given their potential. Then transition to the issue in hand and eventually to the course correction required.
Communicating layoffs is another highly sensitive subject. Approach it gently, with empathy. Whether it is a junior or senior employee, don’t dismiss their contribution just because you don’t need them any longer. Explain clearly the reason for the layoff. If you offer to help, be genuine. People appreciate transparency and integrity.
Keep your communication healthy. Refrain from attacking personality or character during a tough conversation. Don’t be insensitive, or contemptuous. Be empathetic but don’t patronize. You may have the upper hand at the moment, but there is no need to show off your superiority. It reflects poorly on your ethics. Plus, it harms your goodwill.
- Have empathy but not the courage to display? Empathy is a pre-requisite for tough conversations.
Be empathetic while getting into a difficult conversation. Imagine how you would have reacted if you were in a similar situation to the person today. Also, encourage other senior executives or leaders in your team to practice empathy. Motivate them to adopt the same approach in their conversations with their reportees.
For example, your team missed the timeline on a critical project which could cause loss of contract. You will need to take corrective action. You’ve identified the individual because of whom you now face a potential revenue loss.
How will you confront before reaching a conclusion? Will it be a drastic step, such as letting a head roll with one stroke of the sword? Or, would you rather understand first what caused the delay in delivery?
Think through. Was it just sloppiness and lack of commitment that caused the fiasco? Was it because of high workload, shortage of workforce for the project, or some other health-related challenge on the personal front?
Taking a 360-degree approach will give you a holistic picture. Even if you decide to let go the team member due to poor work ethics, and however unpalatable that may be for the individual, the person will see logic in the decision. All you need to do is convey the message appropriately with the help of empirical proofs. Be courteous, albeit firm, in your conversation. It may not be a fortunate outcome – no layoff is – but you would have earned credibility.
- Machiavelli believed in collaboration – do you? You may need to mediate in a conflict between two people. This could present a very tricky situation, especially if they are senior executives with strong opinions. Each wants to take the company forward but has diametrically opposite views.
How do you traverse through major disagreements to build consensus?
Lay out the common ground first. Commonalities, mutual goals and objectives provide the foundation for building consensus. Working for the same goals builds a connect, however disparate the approach, which you can leverage.
This will ensure the discussion remains focused on the topic at hand instead of disintegrating into personal attacks.
Be neutral (listening to an unbiased perspective often tones down the scale of opposition). Lay out the different propositions. List the pros and cons of each. Let every party clearly voice their agreements and disagreements. Ensure no one talks over each other.
When you speak, be clear and concise. People should not see you trying to push your agenda, even if internally you are more aligned to one (of the two) line of thought. Express your opinion and be honest in communicating the feasibility of the different approaches.
Choose your words carefully. Eliminate warning tones ordiscriminatory words and phrases that indicate prejudice. Make sure your body language is appropriate and not dismissive when talking about the approach you are not mentally aligned with.
Be cued in to the discussion throughout. When you notice it veering off in another direction, step in to keep the conversation on track. Spell out the challenges if required. The more you bring clarity to conversations, the greater the chances of a favorable outcome.
Last, not all discussions may have favorable outcomes. Sometimes you may need to stop if you see it is going nowhere. Do that, if required. It will give people the space to mull over conflicting views. It will send out the message that we need to learn to live with disagreements.
The most important thing about dialogues or discussions is that all members get to speak. When you facilitate such a conversation, irrespective of its outcome, the team walks out of the room feeling heard. Psychologically, this is both satisfying and empowering.
A leader always leads by example. The decorum you follow, your personality, approach, the language you choose, each will set a benchmark for others in the team to adopt.
- Feedback is the breakfast of champions. Thought leader and sought-after business consultant Dr. Ken Blanchard’s words resonate deeply regarding day-to-day management and leadership development.
Is it safe to assume that we’ve fared well in the absence of feedback? Perhaps not.
What does the other party to the conversation feel? Was the explanation satisfactory? Was the individual heard or given a chance to express their opinion? What could have been done better?
Answers to these will help you improve your approach. Each time you seek feedback, you discreetly prompt your peers and subordinates that they too must seek feedback.
By seeking and incorporating feedback, you send out the message that your organization values the opinion of its employees.
Difficult conversations haveincreasingly become a part of the workplace culture. As stress levels rise amid uncertainties, conflict management has gained a new significance in leadership skill development.
Leaders can no longer avoid difficult conversations to maintain the status quo. In fact, tough conversations have the potential for collaboration. Shutting down communication deprives the organization and its people of meaningful exchange of opinion and perspectives.
Giving vent to emotions and expressing opinions is important for employee growth and engagement. No workforce can grow if they feel stifled.
Difficult conversations, therefore, are a means for relationship building. As a leader, when you face tough conversations, you show respect for everyone’s opinions. When you call out challenges, it shows courage.
When you address conflict and tough conversations, you set an example for others to follow. It adds to your character.
Teams rally behind leaders with character.
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