The Manager’s Role in Workplace Conflict

silhouettes of two people with backs turned having a conflictRecently, a reader sent me a question wondering whether managers have a role and responsibility to manage workplace conflict. The short answer is yes, although I’ve had a few managers tell me otherwise.

I’m reminded, in particular, of a supervisor who told me that he expected his employees to solve their own conflicts. “They’re adults, after all,” he insisted. Mind you, he told me this after I’d been called by his boss to help mediate a team conflict in this supervisor’s group that had been brewing for several months, and had escalated to the point of effecting both morale and productivity. He neither realized nor believed that his lack of action had contributed to the worsening situation.

He wasn’t all wrong. Employees do have a responsibility to manage their own conflicts, especially those of a personal nature. However, when, for whatever reason, they are unable to make progress, the conflict festers and can expand out to other co-workers. Co-workers might begin taking sides, spend unproductive time gossiping, and may even join in with verbal attacks and counter-attacks. All of this divides the team, lowers productivity, and creates a psychologically unsafe workplace.

In many U.S. states, employers have a legal duty to provide not only a physically safe and healthy workplace, but also a psychologically safe one.

The potential for lawsuits is only one risk employers face if they don’t have provisions in place to address workplace conflict. There are financial risks too such as costs related to employee turn-over, low morale and productivity, high absenteeism, investigations, and as in the example above, the cost of mediation with the team and remedial coaching with the supervisor.

By the way, the conflict that supervisor didn’t think was his business? It was a disagreement about performance standards. Worse, the disagreement was between the only woman on the team (who had been there about a year), and the men–the “old guard”–in the group. The men thought her standards were not high enough. The supervisor? He said her performance met standards.

Can you see the liability risk to the organization?

Senior managers are responsible for setting policies and procedures to ensure a psychologically safe workplace. They need to set and manage explicit expectations for workplace conduct and behavior. Some organizations provide conflict management and mediation skills training for their managers. Some have professionally trained mediators on staff. Others hire out such expertise when needed.  

All managers, from supervisory levels on up, have a responsibility to stay aware of conflicts between their employees, and to intervene appropriately when needed.

  1. Depending on the severity of the conflict, interventions can start with a simple request to work it out along with coaching to help the conflicting parties get on track.
  2. If the conflict remains, the next step might be for the manager to sit in and mediate one or several conversations. It can often take more than one session to make progress. This is where training in conflict management skills becomes critical.
  3. If that doesn’t work, the manager should ask for help from an experienced professional, either internal to the organization (often within a human resources department) or external.

These are just the basics. In the next several posts, I will cover management’s role to:

  1. Prevent unnecessary conflicts
  2. Manage team conflicts
  3. Facilitate productive conflicts
  4. Manage conflicts triggered by organizational change initiatives

Have you ever had a manager who handled conflicts well, or one who didn’t? What did you learn from those experiences? What do you think employees can do if managers don’t step up?