Managing Conflict Tips for Front Line Leaders

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During our Front Line Leadership course or in our stand alone workshop on Leading in Conflict Situations we begin with a word association exercise. Not surprisingly the word conflict has mostly negatives associated – argument, war, anger, disagreement, escalation, etc. Those negative views on conflict lead most of us to avoid dealing with the conflict in hopes it will correct itself. Sometimes it does and avoidance when done strategically can be a viable approach.

How conflict is a normal part of change and continuous improvement

There will be disagreement when you implement a change. It might be a difference of opinion on:

  • Where we are now (current state) – Managers take for granted that everyone in the organization understands the reason change is necessary. In reality there will be many opinions regarding the existing situation. Even though management has often done a lot of thinking, analysis and discussion about the current situation, this is often “sprung” on employees who don’t have the same context. Lots of explanation and consultation can help close the gap of understanding.
  • Where we need to go (future state) – If getting agreement on the current state is difficult you can imagine the different opinions on where we need to go. Getting input and buy-in here will make it easier to move onto discussing the best method of getting there.
  • How we should get there (method/approach) – There is always more than one way to accomplish a goal but the tendency is to lock into one path and try to convince everyone (or force them) to buy in. By involving people who use the system it improves the chance for success. Because managers are detached from the work or service delivery they don’t understand the impact of change at the front line and on the customer experience. Reflect on the changes you’ve implemented thinking they would be easy only to discover a host of problems that caused you to go back to the drawing board.

Time famine – the reason that leaders don’t take the time to get maximum buy in is because they think it won’t be necessary, that everyone will understand and agree and we need to get it done now (after all it is on someone’s goal list or to-do list). Of course if we tracked the delays and amount of time to fix problems we would discover the time would have been much less if invested upfront.

Change isn’t the only reason you will see conflict in the workplace so let’s

Five Conflict Strategies and When to Use Each

  1. Compete (force your way) – Aggressive people use this approach more than they should. Sometimes when its really important to you and less important to the other person you will need to impose your solution on them. If over played, this technique can lead to a break down in relationships, sabotage and avoidance.
  2. Accommodate (let the other person have their way) – Passive people will tend to give in more than they should. Strategically there are times when the other person feels strongly about something and you don’t care as much. Let them have their way. If over played others will take advantage of you.
  3. Avoid (pretend nothing is wrong) – One of the coaching tips we give to supervisors is that you don’t need to react and respond to every taunt. Sometimes it is better to let it go and not engage. If the situation is heated and emotional it is best to have a cooling off period (temporarily avoid) and then sit down to work things out. Avoidance tends to be over used and causes problems to build up which can make the next event even more emotional, often over a relatively small issue.
  4. Compromise (you give in, they give in) – When you read about conflict in the newspaper you will see the headline “Workers and management compromise.” Many people think compromise is the best you can expect in a disagreement. By definition compromise means both sides don’t get what they want and our equally miserable. Don’t strive for compromise – use it as a last resort.
  5. Collaboration (you win, they win) – Often two people in a conflict need and want different things or place different importance of certain outcomes. Knowing this you should seek out areas of common agreement and then evaluate the differences for relative importance. You want to win on the areas important to you and they want to win on areas important to them. It takes time to collaborate and your focus is on understanding what the other person wants to see how it matches up with your needs.

When you, your managers and your front line leaders see conflict as an opportunity to build understanding, gather different perspectives and embrace diversity, you will achieve better outcomes and a stronger, more constructive culture.

Leading in Conflict Situations is covered in the Front Line Leadership program and as a stand alone workshop.