Leadership Development

Resolving Conflicts as an Inclusive Leader

Inclusive leaders develop conflict resolution skills that avoid harming employee relationships. The ability to constructively resolve workplace disputes without alienating people demonstrates a belief in the value of all employees. - BY DAVE DESOUZA

Whenever two or more people must work together, there are going to be times when conflicts occur. The larger the workforce, the more likely conflicts will regularly develop. The reasons for such conflicts may be personal due to personality clashes or workstyle differences, or they may be a product of workplace or leadership issues such as unclear work roles, limited resources, incompatible goals, or poor workload distribution. In a diverse workforce, conflicts may arise because employees with different backgrounds communicate differently, leading to misunderstandings. Leaders play a crucial role in resolving conflicts within teams or organizations. They are responsible for maintaining a harmonious work environment, addressing disagreements, and promoting healthy communication among team members. An inclusive leader develops conflict resolution skills that support and value all employees through strategies like open communication, developing a safe space for employee expression, and developing and implementing clear guidelines and procedures for conflict resolution. Conflict events also become opportunities to improve employee collaboration and develop a more inclusive workplace.

Understanding Conflict

Very few workplaces never experience conflict, and some managers even encourage positive conflict, when it is carefully used to promote productive and constructive exchanges of ideas leading to innovative ideas or a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives. Positive conflict can lead to stronger employee relationships, when the communication is respectful and open and leads to mutually beneficial solutions.

The flip side of positive conflict is negative conflict, in which issues are left to fester and not addressed productively. Unresolved or poorly addressed conflicts significantly impact a company and its employees. Tensions between employees reduce productivity, collaboration, employee engagement, and morale. They increase turnover, strengthen or create biases, and create a culture of mistrust.

Some leaders try to ignore workplace conflicts or handle them perfunctorily without trying to delve into the conflict's roots. The Neuroleadership Institute names five common workplace conflicts. These are firstly shifting work arrangements, partly initiated by employers dealing with the impacts of COVID-19. Coupled with this is the fact that some employees resent being unable to work remotely, or remote workers feel invisible. The second common conflict is uncertainty in job roles due to poor leadership direction, staffing changes, or rearrangement of job duties. Third is poor communication between managers and employees, in which some employees are favored as to what they are told, or expectations are vaguely described. The fourth cause of conflicts is personality clashes. A fifth cause of conflicts is employees feeling excluded. Diversity is a business strength when everyone feels included. Exclusion takes many forms, but whatever evokes the feeling of exclusion activates the brain regions where social interactions and distress are processed. People who do not feel psychological safety lack a sense of inclusion and belonging, which can lead to conflict because the brain’s threat circuitry is engaged.

Creating New Dynamics

Understanding what causes conflict drives the development of conflict resolution leadership skills based on valuing all employees. How conflict is handled significantly impacts the organization, but many managers are uncomfortable or even fearful of addressing conflict. Leaders skilled in conflict resolution strategy development and skills have the tools to help them prevent or resolve potential conflicts before they even occur. For example, conflict is avoided by precisely communicating job or project expectations or ensuring job assignments are not made with bias, i.e., men get the best assignments that lead to promotions.

However, some conflicts are inevitable, and one of the first rules of conflict management and resolution is not to ignore the signs of conflict. Gallup has done a lot of research on workplace conflict resolution, and one belief is that an effective strategy “creates tighter collaboration and a more cohesive team.” Ineffective strategies gloss over the conflict and increase conflict. Gallup makes an important point that may be overlooked but important to inclusion, belonging, and promoting collaboration: "The point isn’t to show opposing factions how similar they are. Just the opposite: It’s to show them they’re different—and that those differences are the key to a mutually acceptable solution.”

Gallup offers an example of two employees who cannot agree on why a software project is going slow. They are both right in that one needs a successful project and likes taking charge but does not feel heard. The other employee wants to see continuity between the original and the new project - and also does not feel heard. The differences in perspective and strategy are holding up the project. The leader must help them see they have complementary skills and strengths they each can trust in the other. Conflict resolution creates a new dynamic by pointing employee strengths in the right direction.

Create a Psychologically Safe Environment

The true challenge for managers is resolving conflicts without creating less trust or suppressing collaboration. Managers need to develop skills in active listening, emotional intelligence, negotiation, and problem-solving. Creating a safe psychological environment is crucial, meaning power dynamics are absent. Everyone must feel comfortable. Before embarking on conflict resolution, inclusive managers must be aware of and address their biases to avoid favoring one employee over another. They must also encourage honest, open communication.

However, when there is conflict, the manager should set some rules. First, choose a neutral environment to handle the conflict, and ensure only respectful communication is allowed, asking the employees involved to set aside preconceived notions. This is particularly important when the conflict has elements of bias or discrimination. Ask employees to actively listen and suggest what they see as a solution. Give every employee opportunities to express themselves and to share ideas. Leaders can help conflicting parties understand each other's viewpoints and find common ground to work towards a mutually beneficial solution. They need to remain impartial and fair throughout the conflict resolution process, avoiding taking sides and ensuring all team members are treated equally and respectfully.

Learn From Conflict

Inclusive leaders will both evaluate why the conflict developed and address the reasons to prevent future conflicts as much as possible. Is it due to weak delegation skills or poorly designed project workflows? Is it because some employees do not feel heard or are experiencing bias in the workplace? Even if it seems as if the conflict is primarily due to personality conflicts, the manager should explore if employees do not understand and accept that people think and act differently. They may need more training on respecting differences and not seeing people with different life experiences or perspectives as a threat. Managers should learn from conflict and leverage that learning to create productive and inclusive change.