What should managers do to resolve conflicts?

Conflicts in a team: Solve a dispute in 7 steps

In which conflicts in the team should managers intervene? And what is the best way to defuse tensions between employees? A guide to conflict moderation.

the essentials in brief

  • Managers should intervene in conflicts in the team if the conflict restricts the performance of the employees.
  • You can resolve dependencies between the disputing parties and offer conflict moderation.
  • If the manager is emotionally involved, a neutral person should moderate the conflict.

When people work together, different opinions, assessments, interests and needs clash again and again. The result: conflicts arise.

This happens particularly often in times of crisis and market upheaval, as is currently the case with the Corona crisis; because many companies are rethinking their previous strategies and setting new priorities. It is all the more important for managers to be able to confidently resolve conflicts within the team.

Content: This is what awaits you in this article

How do managers recognize conflicts in a team at an early stage?

A current example: Mr. Friebe and Ms. Hinz both want to work from home. However, the company requires at least one of the two to be on site at the workplace. Ms. Hinz argues that she has to stay at home because of her children - and Mr. Friebe feels that his interests are not being taken seriously: he is injured.

This conflict is characterized by three features that are typical for all conflict situations:

  • Mutual obstruction: Mr. Friebe and Ms. Hinz prevent each other from reaching their goal of “home office”.
  • Mutual dependency of those involved: If Ms. Hinz works in the home office, Ms. Friebe has to come to the office - and vice versa.
  • Injury at the relationship level: And because Ms. Hinz refuses to come to the office from time to time, Ms. Friebe feels that his interests are not being taken seriously and is hurt.

This is also the starting point for you as a manager to identify conflicts early on: By analyzing who is dependent on whom and how, you identify which team members are potential conflict partners and where differences of opinion are inevitable.

How to recognize whether a conflict is escalating: Escalation levels: The model of conflict escalation according to Friedrich Glasl

Should managers intervene in conflicts between employees?

Your main task as a manager: to make sure that your employees perform as required. You do not have to intervene directly with every disagreement. You should therefore only intervene in those conflicts that reduce the performance of your employees.

How can managers intervene in conflicts between team members?

Sometimes you can manage conflict by resolving dependencies between the parties involved. One possibility is that you delimit their areas of work from one another in such a way that the conflict partners no longer hinder each other in achieving their goals. If Mr. Friebe and Ms. Hinz no longer represent each other in the office, both can work from home.

The ideal way to resolve a conflict, however, is to resolve the problems that prevent those involved from achieving their goals - for example, by jointly looking for a way in which both sides can realize their interests as part of a conflict moderation.

Can managers moderate any conflict between employees?

No! For example, if you are emotionally involved as a team leader, a neutral person should take over the moderation of the conflict. It is similar if you expect a certain solution or if there are (overriding) goals or constraints that you want or have to enforce: Then there is no moderation required, but the use of classic management tools such as instructions or performance agreements.

How do executives prepare a conflict moderation in a meaningful way?

You should clarify in advance whether the parties involved are aware of the conflict and whether their suffering is so great that they are ready to talk. For example, ask for the course of the conflict to be described - but refrain from evaluating it. Rather, ask about the implications and whether the situation is satisfactory for those involved. If you answer with “of course not”, the conflicting parties are probably ready to take a new path. Then you can suggest a conflict moderation.

However, always give those involved in the conflict the option of finding the moderator themselves. Only offer yourself as a moderator if the employees explicitly request it. And explain to them the reason why you are willing to moderate the conflict - for example because you want the two colleagues to work again in a more positive atmosphere and thus more effectively.

If the parties involved in the conflict decide in favor of you as the moderator, you should describe the process of moderation to them precisely. Also, ask them to think about beforehand which behaviors they would like each other to behave in order to be able to work better - but not character changes, only behavioral changes.

How can conflict moderation take place?

Step 1: get in

Usually the employees come to the conflict moderation full of emotions. As a moderator, you should therefore start by saying a few words on the subject of conflicts. For example, there are conflict situations everywhere - not just in the company. In addition, conflicts always arise anew, for example because the requirements change. So new solutions to problems have to be found again and again. That is why conflicts are often important impulses for innovation.

Re-explain to the “brawlers” what conflict moderation is all about: resolving the conflict. However, not in such a way that all emotions and experiences from the past are dealt with; also not in such a way that - as is often the case in companies - the conflict is covered by formal regulations. Rather, the working relationship should be renegotiated and the handling of the interfaces between the fields of activity of the two employees should be regulated in such a way that both can live with it and do their job better. No more and no less.

More on the topic: Getting into conflict discussions: This surprise effect helps to resolve team conflicts

Step 2: define rules

Define rules for moderation with the conflict partners. For example: Both parties make demands on the behavior of the other. These are negotiated according to the “give and take” principle. The agreements are fixed in writing.

Also agree with the conflict partners what remains in the room and what can be discussed with third parties.

You should also clarify your tasks as a moderator with them. For example:

  • I behave neutrally and pay attention to the rules.
  • I intervene when the other person is accused of having “bad” intentions.
  • I prevent the undiscussable, such as the company's goals, from being negotiated.
  • I make sure that no agreements are made to the detriment of third parties.

Step 3: collect topics / demands

After the formalities have been clarified, you can ask those involved, for example, to add the following statements on a form:

  • It would help me to work more effectively if you would do the following more / differently: ...
  • It would help me to work more effectively if you would do the following less / no more: ...
  • Please keep the following activities that will help me work effectively: ...

Questions can also be helpful: Resolving conflicts: You can use these questions to settle disputes in a team

Step 4: clarify understanding

You should either copy the completed forms or hang them up so that everyone can read them. Ask the conflict partners to express each other's demands / wishes out loud in their own words. "You want me to ..."

Have the other person either confirm or correct the statement or point of view. As the moderator, if necessary, ask for examples of the desired behavior to ensure understanding.

Step 5: Prioritize and negotiate claims

Afterwards, both parties to the conflict can use a symbol to mark the demands that are particularly important to them; furthermore with another symbol the demands that are negotiable.

Then they should make offers to each other. For example: "If you inform me promptly, I would ..."

As a moderator, make sure that the negotiation is a real give and take.

Step 6: agreements and minutes

Make a note of all agreements made.

It is normal for emotions to boil up and “experiences” from the past to be described when negotiating the future working relationship. You should let that happen so that the pressure disappears from the boiler. In doing so, however, you have to show a sure instinct to prevent pressure from building up on the other person.

After the outburst of feelings, calmly analyze that it shows how much emotions are involved and that such injuries certainly exist on both sides. And then suggest, "Let's go back to the behaviors that you want."

7th step: Finalize and arrange a follow-up appointment

The agreements reached during conflict moderation often appear to outsiders as trivial or self-evident. For those involved, however, they are important because emotions are attached to them. So these points should also be organized sustainably so that the old wounds are not opened again at a later point in time.

It should also be agreed what happens if agreements are not kept. These don't have to be sanctions. The agreement can also read: "Then we will talk about it in the future - instead of swallowing the anger."

In any case, you should arrange a follow-up appointment to check whether the agreements have been kept and whether any new points of conflict have arisen that need to be dealt with.

Perfectly prepared for employee appraisals

With the checklist "Perfectly prepared for employee appraisals" you, as a manager, go into conversation with your employees with a good feeling - and you know exactly what you want to say. Download the checklist now!

A guest contribution by Sabine Machwürth

The guest author

Sabine Machwürth is a member of the executive board of the internationally active management consultancy Machwürth Team International (MTI Consultancy) in Visselhövede.