The Leader's Role in Coaching Employees through Conflict

Read this article which discusses how to help employees resolve workplace conflict. The author emphasizes how to use confrontations as opportunities to open lines of communication to understand relevant issues at hand and overcome conflicts by working together for a mutually-satisfactory outcome.

Leaders and managers must ensure that conflict is appropriately managed within the workplace. As discussed in Practices for Early Intervention and Resolution of Conflict, managers must take responsibility for helping employees develop the capability to address their conflict situations on their own whenever possible. One means for doing this is one-on-one coaching to help employees work through conflicts and develop skills and strategies for addressing issues.

Coaching an employee through conflict involves helping the individual concretely analyze the facts and circumstances surrounding the conflict, examine the relationship and communication dynamics involved, determine the employee's current competence and confidence in addressing the conflict on his or her own, and develop strategies and approaches for managing the conflict when returning to the workplace. While the leader could always step in to address the conflict situation or call upon a third-party such as human resources to assist, the point of providing direct coaching is to place responsibility and capability in the hands of the individual who is in the best position to address the situation in a manner that best meets her needs - that is, the employee herself.

As a leader or manager, enhance your standard coaching toolkit with skills and practices that support employees' needs to address conflicts with co-workers, customers, and other internal and external constituents with whom they interact. Seek to help employees:

  • Understand their conflict styles. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is an assessment tool that helps individuals identify their general tendencies in responding to conflict in most situations based on five conflict "modes". Does the employee tend to avoid conflict altogether, seek to accommodate the other party even to her detriment, engage in competitive or aggressive behaviors, or work toward compromise or collaborative outcomes?

  • Adopt different responses to conflict if their current responses have proven ineffective. If the employee has avoided the situation, what approaches and strategies can she utilize to be more direct with the other person? If an employee's typical response has been to be argumentative, how can he better understand the need to first listen and then pursue more accommodating approaches that meet both his and his co-worker's needs?

  • Reframe their disputes as opportunities for achieving mutually beneficial rather than win-lose outcomes. Consider the guidance of Getting to Yes, the classic book on "interest-based" negotiation that provides principles and strategies for pursuing outcomes that address the needs and interests of both parties in the dispute while also preserving their relationship. This contrasts sharply with adversarial, win-lose negotiation that often results in destroying trust and any possibility for mending damaged relationships or fostering positive interactions for the future.

  • Walk through, step by step, the process by which the employee will approach the other party to address the conflict. This includes providing opportunities for engaging in role-play, discussing "what if" scenarios and providing feedback on specific approaches the employee is considering so that she may practice and refine them before confronting the other party directly. This may also include remaining accessible over several meetings to help the employee navigate more complex situations that require frequent shifts in approach in response to shifting maneuvers exhibited by the other party.

  • Evaluate and choose among various options for responding. It may be advisable in some situations to do nothing for the time being while you help the employee develop coping strategies to make the situation more tolerable. Other situations may require you to prepare the employee for a conversation with the other party to talk through concerns, while still other situations may require you to prepare the employee to confront the other party more directly to insist that negative behaviors cease. While the employee's efforts to address matters on his own is best, some situations may require the assistance of a third-party such as a mediator or HR representative, in which case you can offer assistance for identifying and seeking support for such services.

Providing coaching in this manner begs three questions on which leaders and managers must reflect before they can provide meaningful support:

  1. Are you capable of managing your own conflicts so that you can serve as a credible role model for others? In an ideal world, individuals who have advanced to assume important leadership roles have done so, in part, based on their skills and competencies in working with others, including managing their personal conflicts in a mature, responsible manner. Sadly, this is not always the case. If this applies to you, work diligently to develop an increased capacity for addressing conflicts (yours and others) so you can become the credible source for support that others expect.

  2. Does your leader toolkit include general coaching skills such that adding conflict coaching is not a great stretch? Advancing to a role for which you have responsibility for managing others presumes competency in coaching them in order to perform their jobs effectively. Job effectiveness includes the capability to manage conflict. You should be able to coach employees through conflict just as you are able to coach them on other aspects of job performance.

  3. Does the conflict situation involve you as the employee's direct manager or another leader in the hierarchy? You cannot be the employee's coach when you are the target of his concerns. Nonetheless, you have an obligation to fairly and objectively support the employee's need to resolve the conflict with you. Use your skills to work directly with the employee to address the conflict situation so that you can come to a renewed understanding of how best to work together. If the employee still struggles in working with you, despite your best efforts to address concerns and own up to your contribution to the conflict, help identify another coach such as a peer leader or disinterested third-party who can help the employee work through his concerns and with you.

Source: Daniel B. Griffith,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 License.

Last modified: Friday, November 20, 2020, 7:32 PM