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Confronting Conflict as a Manager

by Sarah Wilkinson, Class of ’17

As a manger, you will be confronting conflict all the time–maybe even every single day. There are different kinds of conflict of course, but there are certain steps you can take nearly every time. Lindsey Pollak, author of Becoming the Boss, writes:

Since you can’t avoid displeasing people sometimes, another reality of being a leader is that you’ll have to become skilled at handling conflict.

Confronting Conflict When People Don’t Like You

First things first: what do you do when those who you manage don’t like you? The first step is to ask yourself whether it’s one or two who don’t like you, or if it’s more than that. In the latter case, you might want to take a step back and ask yourself what you might be doing to be on edge with so many of your employees. If it’s only one or two, it might be wise to reconfigure your expectations. Why do you need to be liked by everyone? Likely, you were socialized to seek that approval, but to be an effective manager you don’t need to be liked by everyone (and in some cases, it can actually be to your benefit). Chasing that approval could be one of the biggest mistakes you make as a young leader.

One way to confront not being liked is to ask for feedback, both negative and positive, all the time from those you manage. And then — and this is key — change your behavior according to that feedback. The point is to grow from the experience of being liked by some and disliked by others. Learning how to cross that particular minefield is essential to your management education.

Steps to Confronting All Kinds of Conflict

Take Your Time

It may be tempting as more and more millennials come into leadership positions to transition to communicating with your coworkers or staff fully online. However, certain interactions like giving and receiving criticism, discussions about raises or upcoming lay-offs, and quitting your job will always be much more effective in person even if they are uncomfortable. In that vein, it’s always okay to take your time when figuring out how to handle a situation. The moments you will regret the most are the ones where you respond immediately, reacting in a heated or thoughtless way, making a bad situation worse. Taking the time to figure out what to say and how you can bridge your communication style to whomever you’re going to speak with is a best practice.

Bring Solutions

Any discussion with your staff can quickly become a rant or blame-game if the only thing you focus on is the problem and not the solution. In every difficult situation, bring solutions to the table or ask others for their suggestions rather than complaining or pointing fingers. Pollak explains:

Suggesting solutions will not only bring the conversation to a conclusion more quickly , but it also has the benefit of garnering respect from the other person.

Be a Broken Record

When confronting an employee with a criticism of their performance, one method is to “be a broken record.” By that, I mean you should state your main reason for the criticism and stick to it no matter what excuses the employee comes back at you with. Pollak gives the example of an employee who spends too much time texting and online shopping during business hours. Her main message was, “Spending so much time on personal activities is not acceptable and it’s hurting your reputation with the senior staff.” If the employee says she sees you on social media or that she was texting her mom, you repeat the main message again, letting it sink in. Of course, you can (and should) say other things as well, but make the main point clear and it will likely resolve the conflict and keep the blame for the behavior from being placed on your shoulders.

Reach out to Your Support System

One great thing to do when confronting conflict is to reach out to someone who makes you feel confident and safe before and after dealing with a tough situation. This person might be a mentor, a professor, a friend, or even your mom. They might help you figure out what to say or give you the necessary encouragements before you head into the difficult situation. And afterwards, give them another call and debrief: how did it go? What will you do differently next time? As you grow into your leadership skills, you won’t need this trick as often, but in the beginning it’s a great way to bolster your confidence and leadership learning.

Look out for part thirteen of this blog series, which will discuss how to manage people old enough to be your mom as well as your friends. Be sure to check out last week’s post about managing people you don’t like.

Sources: Becoming the Boss by Lindsey Pollak; find more information about Pollak here.