One of the hardest decisions you will face in business is knowing how to handle conflict with another employee. There are times when you should just ignore a grievance...and times when it's much better to deal with the problem head on and seek resolution.
We've all heard the stories of how Steve Jobs would confront people during meetings and challenge them face-to-face. He was a master of communication. Yet, how you handle conflict depends greatly on your leadership role, your relationship with the person who caused the trouble, and your stress level.
I've seen my share of conflict over the years and I've learned quite a bit about resolving it. When I worked as a middle manager in the corporate world, conflict often showed up at my cubicle door. (It wasn't until much later in my career that I had an actual door.) I had a way of (not) communicating information to my staff that sometimes ended in hurt feelings, and I had to decide whether to get involved with the resulting employee conflicts or just steer clear of them and wait for things to settle down.
In some cases, I avoided getting involved because I thought that was the best approach. In other cases, I confronted people before getting enough information and without leaving my own agenda at the door.
Since those days some 14-15 years ago, I've learned how to approach conflict, and the one thing that seems clear to me now is that you have to develop a strategy for conflict resolution and then stick with the strategy. There are times when you should rush into a problem and just handle it. The employee is just begging for that kind of problem-solving. The quick and painless response to conflict sometimes works.
Except for those hundred and hundreds of times when it doesn't. In my corporate days, one of the hardest lessons I had to learn involved waiting. I'm not a patient person. To this day, my tendency is to act and then think. In a way, it's a form of control. I am trying to control problems by acting on them. Yet, in many cases, it would have been better to ask questions, determine the best course of action, communicate about the issue, ask for some mercy, and then repair the damage I had caused after some time had passed.
One of my favorite examples of not rushing into conflict resolution has to do with an angry email I once sent to a coworker. It created a major conflict for me, because I said some things that were hurtful and rude. I should have went over to his desk right away and apologized, then discussed what was bugging me. Instead, I stewed about it. It evolved into a far worse conflict since my coworker had time to tell everyone about it.
An example of when it would have been best to wait? There are many of them. I once had a conflict with a boss who appeared to be favoring one other person in the office. I went to his office one day and started questioning his leadership style. It turns out he was mentoring this other employee because he was not performing up to the standards of this company, and the employee was eventually fired. It wasn't really a conflict that had anything to do with me. I didn't cause it, and I didn't have a good reason to resolve it.
How do you know the difference? When is it better to just let a problem roll off your back, ignoring an offense or just letting things fizzle out? And when is it better to go toe-to-toe and resolve something before it festers like my angry email incident? Here's the secret to conflict resolution. Here's what I've learned since my days bumbling around in the corporate world and in the past 15 years of conflict in my current field.
Conflicts you create with an employee should be handled quickly. Conflicts you didn't create with an employee need a period of time to cool off. That might seem simplistic, but there's some sound reasoning involved. If you created the conflict, you need to own up to it and resolve it as soon as possible. The longer it sits idle, the more it writhes out of control. The reason it is better to put a conflict you didn't create on the back-burner-to wait and ask questions or approach it gently-is that you give the other person time to come to their senses and maybe own up to their mistakes.
It works. You are showing grace in conflict when it wasn't your fault. You are essentially shaking off the offense. Otherwise, in cases where you caused the problem, you are seeking grace quickly and giving the other person an opportunity to resolve the problem. When in doubt, always use a lighter approach and don't come out swinging. It leads to fewer punches. You'll find that most conflicts are easy to forgive.
As usual, will you try this tactic to conflict resolution this week and then let me know if it works? I am eager to hear the details of how you have resolved conflicts.