100% Jodi: Facing Conflict Head On

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How would you describe your comfort level when it comes to facing conflict?

Do you look at it as an opportunity for growth and relationship building? Do you avoid it in the hopes that it will resolve on its own? Or do you find yourself somewhere in the middle? Perhaps at first observing and assessing the situation. But if its clear its not going away immediately you take steps to nip it in the bud.

Some leaders choose to ignore conflict in the workplace in an attempt to “keep the peace.” Yet that can add fuel to the fire. By looking the other way, leaders create an atmosphere of non-trust. Addressing conflict early on is an important first step.

A study by the American Management Association (AMA) found that managers spend 24% of their time resolving conflict.

Instead of just “resolving” workplace conflict, transform it to cultivate a cutting-edge team that can effectively solve problems and develop creative new ideas.

This episode covers facing conflict: how to address and mitigate it, and when to look to other professionals to step in.

Facing Conflict is Natural

Conflict is a natural human experience and can be summed up as an unmet expectation.

I expect we are going to do things this way. You have something else in mind.

I think Tom is going to take minutes and he does not.

I expect a response within a certain amount of time and that’s not what happens.

Or, I would like things to stay the way they are, and yet change is always coming.

When we look at conflict in these simple terms, we start to see that we are constantly in conflict with someone or something.

While there are strategies you can utilize to mitigate conflict, it can’t be completely avoided. Conflict is natural and is occurring all the time. What actually gets avoided and procrastinated is the resolution of the conflict.

The avoidance of facing conflict is what makes things worse than they need to be.

Facing Conflict as a Leader

You may not have realized it but when you took on the role of leader, you signed up to look for and address unresolved conflict.

In my mind, leaders are special because they often take on the things that most other people don’t like doing. Conflict resolution is one of those things. Yet, to be effective as a leader, you have to address conflict head on.

Sometimes what makes conflict so hard is an underlying desire to be liked. While as a leader it’s important to have good working relationships with your co-workers, your highest priority is not to be liked. Your mission as a leader is bring out the full potential of yourself and those you lead to work collaboratively toward your organizational goals.

Can you do that and be liked? Yes, of course. It’s possible.

Yet many leaders make the mistake of avoiding uncomfortable conversations to create the appearance (or the illusion) of harmony. What they are unknowingly doing is exacerbating the underlying tension and creating a dysfunctional work environment.  

Facing Conflict Sooner Rather Than Later

Addressing conflict is all about sooner rather than later. As soon as you have evidence that there has been a transgression, address it right away. If two members of your team have a conflict and can’t seem to resolve it on their own, move them toward working out their differences.

If everyone around you knows something must be dealt with and you are hesitating to act, you will lose the respect of your peers and those you lead. Leadership is about taking action and confronting issues that arise before it’s too late.

Let’s look at some ways you can possibly avoid conflict in the workplace or at least lessen it should it arise.

Know Your Colleagues When Facing Conflict

The better you know the personality traits, strengths and weaknesses of those around you, the better you will be at avoiding conflict or quickly resolving it should it arise.

Two episodes ago we covered the ability to see things from multiple perspectives. The more you cultivate that skill the better you will be at conflict resolution.

It is also essential to understand other people’s motivations. A way to avoid conflict is to help others achieve their objectives. If you approach resolving the conflict from the perspective of helping others to best achieve their desired outcome you will find fewer obstacles standing in your way.

Be Sensitive to Causes of Conflict in Your Workplace

Sometimes the conflict doesn’t necessarily come from a person but rather a process or a new initiative. A common cause of conflict is new software. Some team members will take to it right away, and some will not. Knowing that this change might cause conflict, you address it ahead of time with scheduled training, mentoring, and lowering productivity expectations to allow for the learning curve.

Make Sure All Expectations are Communicated and Crystal-Clear

Define Acceptable Behavior.

Having a definition for what constitutes acceptable behavior is a step in avoiding conflict. Having a framework or rules of thumb for decision-making, listing out best practices, and talking openly about policy and procedures will help avoid conflicts.

Clearly defined job descriptions and chain of command so that people know what’s expected of them allow for effective communication will also help avoid conflicts. Make it known publicly, in no uncertain terms what will and won’t be tolerated.

While you want to extend professional courtesy and may assume everyone knows how to act as a professional, don’t leave wiggle room for interpretation. People cannot read your mind and there are shades of gray for acceptable behavior. Everyone has had different experiences and may have been in environments where something that would be a transgression in your mind, was common practice.

Maintain boundaries

Consider establishing workplace boundaries while resolving conflicts. This can help your team members avoid making the situation worse. An example might include ensuring that discussion of a conflict only occurs between involved parties. Any sharing of the conflict with other colleagues who were not originally involved would constitute workplace gossip.

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Always Look at Facing Conflict as the Door to Opportunity

See the opportunity that conflict presents, for yourself and for others.

As a leader, if you find yourself in conflict with someone this may be an opportunity to increase your people skills. There is some quality in the other person you have not reconciled and it is blind spot for you now. With more inquiry and understanding this conflict could provide tremendous growth for you in your leadership.

Conflict can also be an opportunity for the team. It could provide an opportunity to reinforce team values, open up a discussion on practices that are not working, or provide insight in how to work better together.

Hidden within nearly every conflict is the potential for a tremendous teaching/learning opportunity. Where there is disagreement there is potential for growth and development. Opposing viewpoints addressed properly can stimulate innovation and learning in ways like minds can’t even imagine. Good leaders look for the upside in all differing opinions.

Let’s look at how to approach conflict when it does arise.

Manage Yourself First When Facing Conflict

Remain calm

When resolving a conflict as a leader, you establish the mood and tone for meetings and conversations you have with your team members. Remaining calm can help ensure that conflicts remain professional.

Stay neutral

It’s important that either conflicting team member doesn’t feel you’re working against them. It’s helpful to communicate to both parties that you’re remaining neutral but working toward a solution. Letting them know you want a solution that works for them both can help build trust when trying to resolve their conflict.

Focus on facts

Conflicting team members might focus on the emotions of a situation rather than the facts and causes of their issue. They may also be assigning intentions to the other person that they cannot know for sure are true. Focusing on facts can help everyone find solutions that can help their situation.

Manage Others When Mediating a Conflict

Regardless of what is causing the conflict, your immediate response to these situations is essential. Here are some tips you can use when faced with team members who can’t resolve their own conflicts.

Acknowledge that the conflict exists.

Honesty and clear communication play an important role in the resolution process. Get caught up on what happened and what’s happening and be open about the problem.

Define the problem.

What is at the heart of the conflict? What is the negative impact on the work or relationships? Is it a personality conflict? Meet each team member separately at first and question them about the situation.

Let each person express their feelings.

Some feelings of anger and/or hurt usually accompany conflict situations. Before any kind of problem-solving can take place, these emotions need be both expressed and acknowledged.

Identify the underlying need.

Conflict resolution is not about deciding who is right or wrong. It’s about reaching a solution that everyone can live with. Look first for needs, rather than solutions, to generate some win/win options. To discover needs, find out why people want the solutions they initially proposed. If you can understand the advantages their solutions have for them, you have discovered their needs.

Find common areas of agreement, no matter how small:

  • Agree on what the problem is
  • Agree on what everyone is trying to avoid, what are they afraid of?
  • Agree on next steps
  • Agree on some small change to give an experience of success

Find solutions to satisfy needs:

  • Problem-solve by generating multiple alternatives
  • Determine which actions will be taken
  • Make sure everyone involved buys into actions. Total silence is a bad sign. Be sure you get genuine, verbal agreement from everyone before you conclude the discussion.

Determine follow-up you will take to monitor the situation.

You may want to schedule a follow-up meeting in about two weeks to determine how everyone is doing.

Determine what you’ll do if the conflict goes unresolved.

If the conflict is causing a disruption in the department and it remains unresolved, you may need to explore other avenues.

When to Include Outside Help to Resolve Conflict

While it’s best that workplace disputes stay between management and the team members involved, there are certain situations when human resources should step in. Here are some scenarios that should involve human resources:

  • Conflict is between a team member and a member of management
  • Conflicts are affecting team morale.
  • Team members are threatening to quit over the conflict.
  • Disagreements are getting personal or disrespectful.
  • Disputes are interrupting the work or threatening the company’s success.

Okay, let’s take a deep breath because sometimes just talking about conflict can rattle our nervous system.

Let me end this with a quote from Mary Parker Follett, an American social worker, management consultant, philosopher and pioneer in the fields of organizational theory and organizational behavior.

“There are three ways of dealing with difference: domination, compromise, and integration. By domination only one side gets what it wants; by compromise neither side gets what it wants; by integration we find a way by which both sides may get what they wish.”

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As always, I hope this was of value to you, and here’s to your success!


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