Executives and leaders have a responsibility to create an environment where all of their employees work together toward a common goal. This, when done right, will enable the company to bring in enough revenue to keep everyone employed and to grow the business.
But after working with several hundred senior executives and business owners, I’ve seen a number of challenging interpersonal situations within teams that threaten the positive environment. I’ve also seen these leaders expect a simple resolution that doesn’t require them to get involved.
Why do executives avoid getting involved in these situations? Because no one really likes conflict.
During interpersonal conflict on a team, an executive (generally) expects that the interaction or confrontation will be emotionally charged and uncomfortable at best. They may also expect the confrontation to provoke anger or hurt in the other person. The result? Before the executive ever actually talks to each party involved in the conflict, he or she feels anxious, which encourages the executive to avoid that conversation entirely.
Yet, more often than not, these executives actually believe the conversation actually took place. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked a senior executive, “Did you talk to X about Y?” To which they respond, “Yes, and I was perfectly clear.” Then, when I connect with the other person and ask them, “Did your boss talk to you about Y situation?” they will say, “Nope” … or “Yes, but I’m not sure what came of it.”
How in the world is that disconnect happening? It’s simple: the executive wasn’t clear. He or she talked around the conflict, or, in some cases, imagined they spoke with the person about it. Then, the employee walks away thinking, “Something is up, but I haven’t a clue what it is.” Or, they know the boss is upset with them but are not really sure why, and worse still, don’t know what to do about it.
The Disconnect During Conflict Resolution
In over 30 years of working with people, it’s been my experience that few executives and leaders know how to address conflict clearly. They don’t know how to describe what the employee is doing incorrectly or should do differently or better. All of this feeds into a vicious cycle that ends up in avoidance. The result is employees who dig themselves deeper into a hole and conflicts that eventually require major intervention.
By the time intervention occurs, it’s usually too late; the boss has given up or the people around the employees are so fed up that the employee won’t have a fair chance to turn things around. So, the only step left is termination, which can get ugly.
So what is the cure for this corporate conundrum? Preparation and practice.
How to Commit to Conflict Resolution
There are two key steps in stopping the cycle of conflict avoidance:
Preparation and practice.
- Preparation means thinking about what the employee does that is not productive or irritating, and considering the impact his or her attitude or behavior is having on you, others, and the organization. Write this down on paper in a logical, linear manner with examples. Then, describe what you want the employee to do differently, i.e. what successful resolution would look like.
You must write this down because: 1) If you can’t describe it on paper, you probably can’t do it verbally, 2) You will be anxious and unable to remember all of the details during your meeting, and 3) If you supplement your discussion by providing them with the issue outlined in writing it allows the employee time to digest it and circle back for clarification, and/or to provide additional information which might help fix the situation.
- Practice: The more often you have difficult conversations, the easier it gets. You learn that you can navigate through these and they will become less anxiety-invoking. Each time you do it, you will get better at preparation and presentation, as well as handling curveballs that come up inevitably during these conversations.
Tip: Begin having regular developmental conversations before problems occur. Practice talking with your employees, telling them what they do well and what they need to do better and what they could also do to improve. Then everyone will get used to having these types of conversations, and if you do have to have a very difficult one, you will be more experienced and know how to offer useful “developmental” feedback.
Consistently working towards open communication and creating spaces where your employees and peers feel they can trust you is important in conflict resolution. It’s also important to improve yourself and to admit that you’ve been avoiding these discussions. As a leader, you’ll need to model the behavior you expect from your team, and it starts with no longer avoiding conflict.