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3 tips to help your employees deal with conflict

Rising tensions can be a danger to company culture. Here are a few simple techniques to address disagreements as they arise.

3 tips to help your employees deal with conflict
[Photo: jean wimmerlin/Unsplash]
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In the era of remote work, getting into productive conflicts is one of the most important ways to grow engagement and trust. To help your team become more comfortable with conflicts, leaders need to encourage constructive communication about them.

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Easier said then done? Consider these three steps to get ahead of unproductive and morale-depleting conflicts.

Don’t think of feedback as “negative”

Stop thinking of feedback as either “positive” or “negative”—there’s only helpful feedback. It’s natural for most people to want to avoid conflict or confrontation, whether they are your colleague, your manager, or your direct reports. But if you knew someone would benefit from changing their behavior, then telling them would be one of the most helpful things you could do for them.

Instead of getting defensive, get curious

When a conflict arises, we naturally get judgmental. But instead of judging the person you’re in conflict with, fire up your internal questioning and sense of curiosity. Desire to learn what happened. Ask questions like some of the following:

  • What just happened?
  • What was the person thinking or feeling that made them behave in a certain way?
  • What else might be going on?
  • Are they wholey responsible?
  • Is there a bigger picture to this story?
  • What are our options moving forward?

Apply the “ABC” model

When trying to manage a conflict turn leadership coach Lori Dernavich’s model, based around three simple ABC’s for providing feedback.

  • A = Aiming for, hoping for, wanting for the person. This is short and positive. The reason why you start with a short, positive Aim is to convey empathy, to show you care, and to lessen the chances of the receiver becoming defensive.
  • B = Behaviors you observed in/from the other person. These are fact-based, omitting assumptions, feelings, or judgment. It’s merely what you observed happen. A good way to tell if you are stating facts is the “videotape test”: can what you describe be captured by a video camera? I.e. “You walked out of the meeting” passes the test and it is a fact; whereas “you’re crazy” doesn’t pass the test and is a judgment.
  • C = Consequences or impact of those behaviors. Don’t skip this part either. We often tell people what they’re doing wrong or what we disagree with, but not what those behaviors are doing to the person, others, the company, etc. Calling someone out puts them on the defensive. Focus mainly on the impact.

The key is to use tips in this designated order and not to shuffle or jump around with the steps. So, always use it as the name intended—A, then B, then C.

If they get defensive, keep going back to A (the “aiming” step) to let them know that your intentions are positive. Afterwards, you can discuss what next steps to take.

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To paint the scene, imagine a scenario where you want to have a constructive conversation with someone whose communication style is counterproductive for the team. Here’s an example:

  • A = “Hi [co-worker’s name], we won’t always agree on every issue, but we want you to be an integral part of creating an environment where we can safely and enthusiastically communicate, collaborate, and get s*#t done.”
  • B = “I realize things got heated, but when you [bring up facts about what happened].”
  • C = “X are the consequences of your behavior.” For instance, you can try to bring up how certain actions can affect reputation, damage credibility, and reflect a lack of maturity. Behaviors like that not only shut down the conversation, but you now run the risk of folks not being fully open and honest in future conversations.
  • Return to A = “Again, we all want this company to be successful, and that means we want you to be successful, too. Let’s talk about where to go from here to get us back on track.”

Once everyone starts thinking about conflicts as growth opportunities, they will be more open to have a productive discussion about it. Given the right framework, your team will start to realize a conversation about the conflict won’t break the team, but only make it stronger.


Kate Yuan is a startup adviser, investor, and operator. She previously worked as an operating partner at a VC fund and currently runs a philanthropic fund for entrepreneurs in emerging markets.