Updated: May 11
Intensely fuelled by emotions, conflict distorts a person’s perception. As the COO it is up to you to not only navigate but cut through the tangled web of emotions in order to identify the core issues of the conflict, so that you can reach a mutually satisfying resolution for all parties involved. In doing so, you will notice that the way people feel about the problem is more important than the problem itself.
So how, as a COO can we practice effective conflict resolution in our business?
CONFLICT IN THE WORKPLACE
People spend the majority of their time in the workplace and naturally, conflict is bound to rear its ugly head. High-level ‘people intelligence’ is paramount as a COO, and conflict resolution is certainly one of the times where this softer skillset comes into play.
Shying away and avoiding conflict at all costs will inevitably create a toxic environment, which will disrupt and hinder momentum for the individuals themselves, the team, organisation as a whole, and potentially, even you as a leader.
Leaders who prefer to stick their head in the sand may do so, in an effort to keep the peace, avoid creating a negative reputation for themselves or they may want to maintain their status as being well-liked.
However, the results of simply ignoring a problem like this will ultimately will breed discontent, dissatisfaction, lower productivity and completely wreak havoc on the inner workings of the organisation and the mental health of your employees.
Conflict is uncomfortable, but strong leadership is all about taking action, confronting issues before it is too late and acting responsibly in the face of adversity will in turn garner further respect of your colleagues. As the COO you are expected to develop and guide your people, teams, and in turn the organisation to reach their full potential.
With all of that in mind, it stands to reason that timing is crucial. Taking action to manage conflict head-on as a COO is vital. It is important to understand that waiting for the right time, which never seems to come, or being hesitant to act, can be detrimental to your position as COO. Waiting too long can put your leadership reputation at risk, and you can slowly, but surely start to lose the respect of both your peers and those you lead. Especially if everyone else around you are aware of a difficult situation must be dealt with and any inaction will be a negative reflection on you as a leader.
WHEN TO ACT
So, you are aware of an existing problem, but how are you supposed to know when to strike?
Well, the moment that you have hard, tangible proof that an employee has consistently been doing wrong by another employee and those actions are negatively impacting their performance and potentially the performance of others.
Once you have the evidence, it is important at this point to not take sides or cast judgement at this stage. As any preconceived ideas can influence your demeanour and attitude to either employee or the situation at hand, which can interfere with the resolution process.
Get to know your team, it is advantageous if you are able to clearly understand both the boundaries and the limitations of your employees within each team. This can be achieved by regularly engaging in coaching sessions with each employee. In these one on ones, you can observe and identify any behavioural tendencies that are triggers for certain attitudes that provoke mindset shifts or if they employee appears to demonstrate a lack of self-awareness. As the leader, you can begin to set precedence, reinforce performance expectations, and establish standards and best practice, that can help prevent conflict from arising in the first place.
CONFLICT RESOLUTION MEETINGS
When it comes to conflict, the resolution is rarely black and white. Prior to entering a meeting with both parties, it is beneficial to remind yourself to respect each individual employees’ differences. Each person has different life experiences, skills, and knowledge to offer and it is important that each employee feels valued for their contribution. Learning to see things from differing perspectives can help you as a leader, better understand how to identify potential triggers and avoid conflict in the future.
When entering a resolution meeting it is your responsibility to set the tone for the meeting.
At the start, clearly outline to each party that during the meeting they are not to place blame, be critical, disrespectful, or dismissive in either their actions or language. Placing blame is fuel to the emotional fire, leading to reactive behaviours that further exacerbate the conflict.
Considering conflicts are emotionally charged, with employees who are feeling distressed often acting out and demonstrating bad behaviours, it is important to allow each person to feel heard. So that they can each voice their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and concerns around the matter which will give you the information needed to decipher the core issues and discuss them in a rational way.
As you lead the discussion, ensure that you approach each person respectfully and without judgement. When discussing a particular employee actions, describe each action with the phrase “When you..X,Y,Z”. Initiating the conversation in this way will allow you to describe exactly what the employee did that wasn’t appropriate or didn’t follow the company system or values in a respectful and open way. Once you have clearly described the situation, this gives you the opportunity to clearly outline what your concerns are around the incident.
Always stick to the facts, don’t use any language that will make the employee feel judged or attacked, judgemental language will only make them defensive which is counterproductive to the process, they will then be closed off to any resolution because they feel they aren’t being heard or understood.
As the COO, you should create a safe space, where the people in conflict can openly express their feelings without attacking one another. Each person should be encouraged to truly express their feelings by using “I feel…” statements, to express how the other persons actions make them feel. This step is vital to facilitate any resolution, because where feelings are
involved it is important that each person feels heard, understood, validated, and valued throughout the process.
Conflict is the product of a breakdown in communication, to assume that one party knows another’s thoughts, feelings, or their interpretation of a situation is going to create a barrier to a deeper understanding.
It can be beneficial for either a mediator or yourself to encourage empathy when dealing with employees in conflict by asking each other how they think the other person may be feeling or thinking. If appropriate, they may also describe how they believe the situation may look to the other party. This technique allows each employee to step out of their emotionally charged position within the conflict in order to reflect, show some compassion and understanding for one another.
Once all emotions are out on the table and each person has said their piece, then we move onto the next phase of clearly defining and expressing what each person needs from one another through the use of “I need” statements. As the leader you should both display and encourage both parties to actively listen to one another, be respectful and empathetic.
“I need” statements are the cornerstone of conflict resolution, this is where we brainstorm strategies, behaviours, and find a good compromise or solution, in order to ensure that the same conflict doesn’t occur again in the future.
Moving into this phase, each person should hopefully now feel heard and understood with regard to both their feelings as well as the problem at hand. Prompting each person to constructively and mindfully outline, what they believe they need from the other person.
Once this has been hashed out and a compromise or resolution has been made, it can be good to ask each person to reiterate what actions they will take in future when they are faced with the same trigger. Then finally, ask each employee to assess and if they would like to, share, how they now feel about the resolution as well as the situation moving forward.
At the end of the day, conflict is inevitable, the only variable is how you choose to manage it and work through it to create a positive outcome. As a COO, you’ll almost certainly be caught in the middle of multiple fiery exchanges that require your quick intervention. With a calm, empathetic approach, you can help to settle arguments, resolve conflicts and put old grievances to bed.
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