Conflict Management Starts at the Bottom

If I had my druthers, every single person who manages a team would be required to complete robust mediation training. This, of course, is unrealistic, but the fact remains that many conflicts every day go unnoticed and untreated within organizations – and escalate into expensive lawsuits, lost productively, and enervated employees – when they might have been resolved by well-trained managers early on. So much literature these days focuses on how to create effective conflict “cultures” in organizations; how to establish wide-reaching expectations and guidelines for how to approach conflict situations; how to have difficult conversations between employees; and, how to escalate conflicts through different ADR options. From my research and experience in organizational conflict management, all of these organizational dynamics start where the “rubber hits the road,” when employees make that first decision as to whether or not they feel comfortable and safe broaching conflict discussions with their co-workers or superiors. What is a conflict “culture,” after all, if not the amalgam of many decisions employees make every day as to how they will handle their disputes? And a lot of those decisions are strongly affected by how employees perceive their immediate managers, HR, or organizational ombudsmen will react to their open discussion of a conflict. If employees feel they will be supported and not adversely affected, they are more likely to be open about the conflicts they experience. If they feel they will not be seen as “weak” or a “problem” to be eschewed, they are of course more likely to come forward.

These realities point to the need for not just senior leadership, but also and especially lower-level management to be effective agents of conflict resolution or, at the least, able to project an expectation of open communication coupled with a dedication to protecting and supporting those who report conflict. This kind of managerial orientation presupposes that lower managers understand and value conflict management in the first place. It also presupposes that they are equipped with basic conflict resolution knowledge and tools they will need to effectively interpret and facilitate the conflicts their employees bring up. Finally, effective conflict management on the lower echelons of corporate management requires the ability for managers to work together – across departments if necessary – to understand and deal with conflicts as they arise on their teams. Most organizations do not have defined procedures for dealing with informal or nascent conflicts on their lowest levels, and even fewer still have established expectations that managers will be able to collaborate if necessary to resolve conflict.

Good Managers Are Good Mediators

These points all suggest structural reasons as to why lower-level managers need to be skilled in conflict resolution, but the reasons run deeper than just organizational hierarchy: Effective managers often have the very same skills as effective mediators. At the end of the day, it’s all about how they interact with people (for managers, with their team members, and for mediators, with their clients). Here are a few skills that I’ve found make lower-level managers effective contributors to their organization both as leaders and as mediators:

1. Active and empathic listening skills

Good managers and leaders of teams are adept at making sure their team members feel appreciated, understood, and validated for the contributions they make. Just as with effective mediators, the ability to not only listen but also actively communicate that they are listening to others is a necessary cornerstone to doing this. This includes knowing how to ask insightful questions, rephrase and clarify effectively, and guide points made through reframing and affect labeling, among other skills.

2. Emotional self-regulation

Perhaps one of hardest skills to master as a manager, mediator, or member of the human race is the ability to fully understand and regulate one’s emotions, especially during conflict. As a facilitator of conflict communication it is often necessary to interact with emotionally charged parties who have strong and deep-seeded interests, whether in an organizational team setting or in a mediation. Parties’ strong emotions, coupled with the dynamics of conflict situations themselves, can evoke emotions in mediators and leaders that handicap their own ability to help facilitate the conflict-at-hand. It is essential that managers be able to recognize their internal emotional reactions, anticipate the emotions of others, and separate their own feelings from the task of helping individuals move through their conflicts. This is a level of emotional maturity that takes great self-introspection, practice, and time to develop, and thus optimally should be fostered starting at the lowest levels of any organization.

3. Diplomacy under pressure

Both mediators and managers need to be able to not only understand and control their emotions, but also express appreciation and validation as other individuals share their views – regardless of how that mediator or manager feels in the moment. The very fact that a manager is “outside” of the immediate conflict can be their greatest tool, because distance from the conflict can enable them to see perspectives the parties could not otherwise access. Being able to guide individuals out of their own conflict mindsets and into new ways of thinking, though, often requires the tactfulness and poise to respond kindly even when team members may not be acting rationally. A pinch of understanding, a dash of diplomacy, and a whole lot of patience are often fundamental to both managers and mediators being able to move conflicts forward.

4. Mental dexterity

For many psychological reasons, people in conflict often come to see their stances as “all or nothing,” and as “completely correct” in contrast to the stated positions of others. Unresolved emotions, unspoken expectations, poor communication, and organizational-systemic problems can all lead to this kind of polarization, and it is often the job of managers and mediators to deal with these dichotomous views. It is essential that managers and mediators understand why parties develop their different perspectives in the first place, and then be able to suss out which assumptions and expectations may be hampering resolution of the conflict. Doing this requires that managers and mediators be able to simultaneously entertain often drastically different perspectives, assess which discrepancies, misunderstandings, and assumptions may be driving impasse, and then dexterously question all sides about those cognitions. It is also important for both managers and mediators to think creatively about solutions that can satisfy all parties’ interests; that are sustainable; and that are in-line with organizational goals.

The Training Gap

Now ask yourself, “When is the last time you heard of a new manager being trained in how to handle intra-team disputes in these ways?” Some companies do this, perhaps in one short session or even for a couple of days, but most do not. Many managers are promoted under the assumption that they will “figure it out” because they have proven fastidious workers at the level below or because someone with authority likes their personality. Meanwhile, interpersonal conflict dynamics may perhaps be the most complicated dynamics with-which most managers must interact, both because every conflict is unique and because conflict facilitation skills are rarely taught and even more rarely taught effectively. If you are in a position of influence in your organization, here are a few suggestions for helping your team-leaders more effectively facilitate conflicts:

1. Train them early, thoroughly, and continuously

This might seem over-simplified, but I cannot stress it enough. Conflict management skills are often overlooked and ignored, and managers’ inabilities to effectively navigate conflicts cost corporations millions of dollars every year. One way to think of organizations is as a group of people working together with common goals. People can only work together by communicating, and communication can lead to conflict through myriad avenues of misunderstanding and ill-effects. From this standpoint, any manager in any division of any company needs to be able to thoroughly understand how they communicate to others, how others perceive them, and how to help individuals communicate amongst themselves. And the further down an organizational hierarchy employees are, the more chance there is for misunderstanding between themselves and those above them, as well as between their units and those in which others work.

Because of this, it would be hard for any organization to over invest in conflict management training, and training should start from day one that an individual is promoted to lead a team. Better yet, training should start before they even arrive on the new job. This training should include individualized role-plays – where new leaders must assume the roles of both team members and team leaders in complex and sensitive communications – as well as opportunities for managers to reflect on their own conflict styles, the conflict culture of their organization, and how they might plan to handle difficult conversations moving forward.

2. Start with the basics, when necessary

As a corollary to the first point, learning how to facilitate conflict often starts with very simple skills that we as individuals are never taught or encouraged to do in our everyday lives. Many people struggle to listen effectively when they disagree with others’ statements; to effectively communicate appreciation; to build rapport even when they do not feel like doing so; and to anticipate what individuals in conflict situations might be thinking, or feeling, and why. All of these skills are essential for team leaders to effectively deal with conflict, and can be developed over time with practice and continuous reflection.

3. Reframe conflict as learning opportunities

Perhaps one of the single-greatest downfalls of many organizations is that they do not view conflicts as opportunities to learn and grow. Think of a child learning how to walk – they will likely fall, cry, and become frustrated, even angry. But eventually they get there – not by avoiding the task or by pretending they don’t need to walk, but by openly embracing their desire to walk and continuously taking the risks necessary to become better at the process. This is the learning process at its most basic, and exactly mirrors effective conflict management. Some of the top Blue Chip organizations have learned to see conflicts as opportunities to learn a better modus operandi  – whether external conflicts, such as consumer product complaints, or internal conflicts, such as tensions between divisions. They are willing to fall, scuff themselves, and still remain doggedly open about the conflicts they encounter in order to learn and grow, and this conflict culture pervades their organization from top to bottom.

4. Develop common expectations for conflict management

Of course, lower-level managers do not operate in a vacuum – all members of organizations need to be able to recognize, respond to, and in some instances, facilitate conflicts as they arise. This means developing simple and easily-accessible conflict management programs, methods of assessing different kinds of complaints before they escalate into expensive lawsuits, and perhaps most fundamentally a common understanding between employees and their leaders about how to communicate concerns. Simply stating to employees that they should “report grievances to their immediate supervisors or to HR” is not sufficient. Employees have to know that can respond to conflict in several ways – through thoughtful communication amongst one-another, through informal reporting to their supervisors, and through anonymous reporting to organizational ombudsmen, as examples. Only in this way, as employees come to trust and respect these avenues of conflict management reporting over time, can common expectations for conflict management develop at all levels of an organizational hierarchy. At its best, every single employee of an organization can serve as a kind of “early warning system” for larger, systemic issues that may be affecting organizational performance.

Some Concluding Thoughts

These aren’t just pie-in-the-sky ideals, and indeed after having worked with and studied organizations trying to implement approaches similar to these my perspective is far from Pollyannish: Conflict management is hard, and always will be. I fully expect that most organizations will never value it highly enough. But the potential rewards of effective conflict management are astounding – I’ve seen it happen. An effective conflict management culture cannot simply permeate an organization from the top down, there also has to be large movement and buy-in from the bottom-up. Lower-level and frontline managers – especially those inexperienced with, or who otherwise struggle with, interpersonal communication – need to be well-trained in how to identify and respond to conflict scenarios, and they need to be supported by conflict reporting and management mechanisms so that employees can feel comfortable being open with their concerns. Once these processes are in place, only then can organizations begin to truly tackle and learn from the conflicts that arise within them.

By Zachary Ulrich

Zachary P. Ulrich is currently a researcher for Pepperdine School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. He holds a JD, Masters in Dispute Resolution, and Masters in Psychology (Clinical). Zach is an alumnus of General Electric’s highly-esteemed Financial Management Program, where he held several financial analysis positions of increasing responsibility and completed a graduate-level education in business management and operations. He has published over twenty-five articles and commentaries on organizational conflict resolution and mediation psychology.