To successfully navigate workplace conflict, managers must be able to confront team members in a positive, productive manner. Whatever the situation, whether two people are actively quarreling, or whether one person’s behavior is impacting the entire work culture, a manager must be able to step in, take charge and do so in a way that does not contribute to the drama.
How, then, do you constructively confront team members? How do you both get your point across and preserve team chemistry?
For any manager, these conversations can be crucial. Ongoing conflict and drama can, of course, have a ripple effect on everyone, and the last thing any organization needs is a dip in morale. Assuming this is not a situation that calls for firing, there is a great deal a manager can do to help resolve the problem, be firm and preserve group harmony.
In having these conversations, here are three things to keep in mind:
1. Use Nonaccusatory Language
For many of us, it is tempting to place blame and pin an entire problem directly on someone else. After all, aren’t they the ones causing the disturbance in the first place? A constructive solution, despite our first impressions, involves shelving the urge to blame and taking a step back.
How you phrase things makes all the difference. You can make the conversation productive by focusing the language on you. For example, you can say, “I notice you missed the last two staff meetings,” or “the other day I overheard your comments about the director.” The alternative would look like this: “you missed the last two staff meetings,” or “you made those comments about the director.” One statement talks about your observations, what you saw, noticed or heard. The other puts everything squarely on them.
This may seem subtle, just a matter of semantics, but in constructive confrontation your word choice matters. When you talk about your observations, people naturally feel less defensive. When people do not have their guard up, you will be able to get more accomplished.
2. Be Clear
As a manager attempting to put a stop to harmful behavior, you must be clear in this conversation. Your group cannot afford any mixed messages. Therefore, be as clear as you can about the following:
- What you heard or saw. Make sure there are no ambiguities. If you didn’t experience any of the events firsthand, be sure you have gathered sufficient information. The person you are talking to needs to know exactly what he or she is doing that damages your group chemistry.
- How this impacts the group. Often, people do not intend any sabotage, but their behavior may, nonetheless, have a detrimental impact. It is perfectly fine to be direct about this impact; often the person really needs to hear it.
- Your expectations. If you don’t clearly state your expectations for future behavior, this conversation will be a waste of your time. Unclear expectations create needless confusion and can lead to future problems. As a manager, you must say what you expect. Luckily, this can be done in a nonaccusatory manner that strengthens the group rather than pulls it apart.
A conversation—even one you must have with an employee about his or her behavior—is just that, a conversation. This means it involves two people. Though you will need to come into the dialogue with an agenda and get your point across, the process will be infinitely more productive if you give the other person a chance to speak and, more importantly, to be heard. This means you must take the opportunity to listen.
When the people feel you have heard them, their tension level goes down. Defensive posturing that might otherwise stand in your way will disappear. They may even feel grateful for your hearing them out, and appreciated. This can be crucial to maintaining group harmony. Provided you take the opportunity to clearly state your expectations, there is absolutely nothing to lose in taking a moment and listening.
Also, if you listen attentively enough, the other person may offer suggestions or solutions you hadn’t considered. You will never know unless they get an opportunity to speak, too.
Consider these three suggestions the next time you have to confront somebody in the workplace. In most situations, you can preserve group harmony, show respect and appreciation for the other person, and be sure you have clearly stated your expectations. It is indeed possible to become a pro at constructive confrontation. Do it and your organization will benefit.
Tomás Garza is a conflict resolution and personal development expert with more than 12 years of experience. He previously was a faculty member at Portland State University and president of the Oregon Mediation Association.