Sarah was beside herself with excitement when she learned she was being promoted to her first management position. It was everything she had worked so hard for, and she was determined to be the best manager possible. Her company's new manager training program addressed many critical elements, like understanding her role and what her responsibilities would include, communicating her expectations clearly, and delegating responsibilities.
However, her training was missing any discussion of how to deal with difficult people. Nothing on conflict resolution and dealing with difficult people--which left her unprepared for the challenges she would soon face.
Her early days in her new position went well, and she was thrilled to see the people she was leading respond to her direction. The honeymoon ended when two of her direct reports starting arguing in meetings and causing dissension among the team members.
As Sarah told me during a coaching session, "I was so confused. I did not know how to deal with the situation, and it escalated and started impacting the morale and productivity of the entire group." I quickly reassured her that her situation was not uncommon and helped her develop strategies to address the conflicts her employees were creating.
The reality of workplace conflict
According to a global study, "Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harness It to Thrive," an overwhelming majority of employees at all levels (85 percent) experience conflict to some degree. The research, published by CPP Inc., found that U.S. Employees spent 2.8 hours per week involved with conflict, which they estimated as representing approximately $359 billion in paid hours in 2008--or the equivalent of 385 million working days.
The study noted a discrepancy in how well managers thought they handled conflict and how well they actually did: a third of managers (31 percent) reported that they handled disagreements well, but only 22 percent of non-managers agreed with those number. And, 43 percent of non-managers stated that their supervisors did not deal with conflict as well as they should, compared to only 23 percent of managers who shared that perspective.
Additionally, the authors of the study called out the fact that what they found the most striking - and alarming - was that the majority of employees had never received conflict management training. Yet dealing with difficult people, or people who are creating conflict, is a reality in the workplace; one exacerbated by the range of internal and external pressures of working.
There's an enormous financial cost to organizations whose managers lack training in dealing with difficult people. Those companies who understand the value of conflict resolution and provide training to their employees have a competitive advantage. New managers who are tasked with leading potentially disgruntled employees are better able to manage if they have been shown how to deal with difficult people in the workplace.
Tips for managing conflict in the workplace
Conflict in the workplace is a given. Bring any group of people together, and you will find differences of opinion, perspectives, and personalities. Cultural diversity can be a factor too. I know from my work, for example, that Europeans are more direct and saying, "No," is acceptable. While in the Americas it is less common to say, "No," and in Asia, it is considered completely impolite to say, "No."
Managing conflict, then, is an essential skill for a new manager. And to manage conflict, you need to understand your own response to the objection, or person's behavior, or situation. You need to learn how to diagnose a situation and drive it to resolution and, how to manage conflict and turn and objection around.
Some people take a negative view of conflict and are uncomfortable with it, believing it should be suppressed or avoided. But I have found that expressing it openly and getting the issues out on the table can result in positive outcomes. I like to advise my clients to "mine for conflict" so that managers can surface any negativity and deal with it directly. I believe that it's important to provoke conflict sometimes to get any bad feelings out on the table.
Sound impossible? It's not. Let me share these tips for dealing with difficult people at work:
1. Use empathy statements to show you hear them
2. Ask if you can have a one-on-one to address their particular questions after the general meeting
3. If you are dealing with the decision-makers, drop your agenda and go into open question mode
4. Suggest taking a break, before resuming create a position-offer
5. Ask the person how they feel about your solution
6. Remind the difficult person, or people, of the big picture and that you are all on the same team and that what's good for the company can be good for the individual.
Need more help? My new book, The New Global Manager, due out this summer, will offer practical advice and best practices to help you manage diverse personalities, conflict, and challenging people--all on a global level. I'll also recommend an excellent resource you can find on Twitter: @askamanager. @askamanager tweets advice to help you understand what managers and employees go through in the career development process (and how they manage conflict in the workplace too.)
And Sarah? Six months later she reported that things had improved and mentioned that she had begun taking 15 minutes at the start of her team meetings to have a "complain session" so that the team was able to clear the air get any issues out of the way. She sounds like she is adjusting to the new role very well.