Effective, one-on-one coaching can stimulate growth in our workplaces. In fact, it’s been proven that better coaching creates better performance, and better performance means the business grows. While I’ve written previously on how to get the most from your direct report one-on-one meetings, for me, my thought process today goes into what to do if your direct report comes to you with a problem. Specifically, a conflict in the workplace.

How to be a better manager through conflict resolution coaching

I don’t expect managers to begin on Day 1 with all of the “best practice” answers. Becoming a great manager takes work and feedback, no matter how long you have been in your role. As someone who works with People teams, today I want to build the case for learning conflict resolution skills. Because it’s important that managers learn to identify the root causes of issues. 

Once they do, it’s easier for us to communicate solutions efficiently, proactively, and with empathy. So let’s talk about the ways we can effectively coach and support our team when conflicts come up. (And for more, you should check out our In Good Company manager training, a free and easy training you can assign to your managers in just a few clicks!)

What conflict in the workplace can lead to

As a VP of People, I have learned the huge impact of conflict in the workplace. When an employee constantly feels like they’re not being heard, especially by the leadership who’s supposed to help them, it’s likely they could feel undervalued in their company. 

Alternatively, being an ongoing soundboard to someone’s complaints without helping them get to the root cause of the conflict can equally lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration.

So in a nutshell, when your managers are coached ineffectively, or not at all, that conflict can lead to:

  • Exacerbated employee feelings of frustration and confusion
  • A divisive and/or toxic workplace culture
  • Limited chance for employee professional growth and autonomy
  • Inefficient workstreams within teams and the company overall
  • Recurring issues (due to addressing the symptom but not the root cause of the problem)
  • Burnout, demoralization, and frequent employee turnover

5 steps on how to deal with conflict at work 

1. De-escalate while remaining clued in

As managers, our goal when it comes to conflict should be to keep the bigger picture in mind. Does this mean that we can’t empathize with a hurting or frustrated teammate? Absolutely not! 

How can you affirm someone’s experience, and at the same time de-escalate while remaining neutral? 

Exercise. Try saying: “I can tell this is really affecting you. Let’s take some time to work through this.”

2. Disentangle to get to the main issue

Jackie comes to your weekly check-in meeting with a complaint that quickly multiplies into 20 different tendrils. As a manager, it is our role to help teammates look through the haze of conflict to find the true cause. 

Exercise. In this situation, try saying: “I’m hearing a few different things going on here. Which one is the highest priority? Let’s tackle them individually.”

3. Replace generalizations with specific facts

When one-off conflicts shift into a pattern, it can be even harder to find specific solutions. A person who reports to you may emphasize the recurring way they have been feeling. Typically this includes sweeping statements like “Insoo always does this to me,” or “Houston has never been a team player.”

When this happens, looking beyond the hurt to find specific examples can be hard to do! You can help employees deal with conflict, especially of the emotional variety, by requesting specific instances and examples. 

Exercise. Try asking: “How long has this been going on? Is this the first time it’s happened?”

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4. Assume good intent

Look, no one is a mind reader, and that includes the people on your team! As an observational outsider, it is the manager’s job to help an employee look at an incident of conflict from a new angle. 

Exercise. Try prompting: “Assuming they’re not intentionally doing this to make your life harder, what do you think might be causing this? Are there blockers the other person might be facing?”

5. Promote employee accountability

One of our end goals, as managers, is to foster conflict resolution skills within our teams. Knowing how to deal with someone who avoids conflict is equally beneficial. We may currently be the first resource for a frustrated employee, but the goal is that we won’t always have to be. 

Help employees grow by encouraging them to take the opportunity to work through conflict on an individual basis when they feel comfortable doing so. 

Solution. Try offering:Have you shared this feedback with the other people involved? Walk me through the actions you’ve taken to address the situation so far.”

The best way to deal with conflict: use your one-on-one meetings

Ok, let’s set the stage. You and your direct report have worked together to find the root of the problem. They’re ready for help and you want to give them the best support you can provide! What comes next?

Let’s look at implementing the above 5 steps through the lens of an example. 

Scenario. Jeremy, one of the people who report to you, comes into his weekly one-on-one riled up and ready to vent it out. Turns out David, a coworker working on the same project, has been dumping project-based tasks on Jeremy before he barely has time to finish the previous one. At first, it seemed that David was also overwhelmed and trying to stay afloat any way he could. But now, after several weeks of repeated hand-offs from David, Jeremy is convinced that David is tossing the work to him that he just doesn’t want to do.

Step 1: De-escalate. As the manager, you set aside a small portion of the session for Jeremy to vent it out. 

Step 2: Disentangle. After a few minutes, you’re able to gently shift Jeremy to breaking down the frustrating action to find what is at the core of what’s going on. First, you ask Jeremy to look at the problem from an outsider’s perspective. 

Steps 3-4. Get specific facts and assume good intent. Then you ask him, “What are you hoping to achieve? What would success look like at the end of this situation?” Jeremy says he wants an equal distribution of the tasks, and for himself to be supported on this project by the entire team. You and Jeremy look at what needs to happen in order to achieve these goals and then set out a reasonable timeline. 

Step 5. Accountability. Once that is decided, you direct the conversation towards ownership and empowerment by asking Jeremy, “What in this situation is within your control to change? What role can you play in helping reach this goal?”

4 steps to conflict resolution coaching

Now that we’ve spent some time diagnosing the root causes, it’s time to get to the actual conflict resolution part. (Yay!) 

I go into more detail on the below steps in our Coaching Through Conflict worksheet, but a high-level summary involves:

  1.  Problem-solving. Work towards clarity. Try asking: “What are you hoping to achieve? What would success look like?”
  2. Keep it realistic. Try asking: “What would need to change in order for that to happen? What does a reasonable timeline for this look like?”
  3. Focus on ownership and empowerment. Try asking: “Which of those things are within your control to change? What role can you play in helping reach this goal?”
  4. Prioritize solution-oriented action and accountability. Try asking: “What action(s) are you going to take between now and our next Feedback Friday to address the situation?”

Is coaching on conflict resolution working?

Over time, your direct report will become better equipped to resolve issues on their own thanks to the above steps on conflict resolution coaching. The end goal is to work toward their defaults being:

  • Assuming good intent
  • Assessing whether or not (challenge) is the right priority
  • Mining for the root cause of issues
  • Taking ownership and accountability
  • Having a bias for problem-solving, not problem-dwelling

A quick reminder. If your direct report does not begin to embody these defaults, this could lead to performance issues you’ll need to address. For tips on performance management, check out our free In Good Company manager training. 

Another way to know if your conflict resolution coaching is working is if it leads to:

  • Employee personal and professional growth
  • Employee empowerment and motivation
  • Holistic and neutral views of problems
  • Calmness, clarity, and empathy when hearing challenges
  • Effective problem-solving

Want to learn more about what makes a great manager? Try out our free In Good Company Manager training to empower your workplace leaders to support a culture- and business-focused team. Or request a demo to see how Ethena features like our Employee Survey tool or a course in our training library can help us build a better workplace together.

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