Why Leaders Need to be Assertive to Resolve Conflict
One of the most effective skills any leader can have is assertiveness. Whether in the workplace or elsewhere, conflict is everywhere. It may be unspoken, unrecognised and undetectable unless you delve deeper, but it’s there. As managers, you need to ensure that conflict remains healthy, that it drives productive competition and brings about positive changes that ensure everyone’s needs are addressed. It’s not about being nice and making people happy. It’s about identifying your interests and those of the other people affected by conflict and finding creative and durable solutions that satisfy everyone. That’s the only way to end conflict.
Leaders need to identify when their intervention will be useful. They shouldn’t involve themselves in every inter-colleague dispute but they should look at the impact on a team and assess whether they need to involve themselves. They need to define boundaries and make sure behaviour is appropriate for the environment they work in.
Here are some tips to help leaders develop assertive conflict resolution skills
- Set down some boundaries and decide what behaviour is acceptable. If you want people in your organization or team to speak and behave with respect, you need to define what that means. To me, it means using clean language, being polite, understanding that we can say what we want but exchanges must always be respectful, and apologies may sometimes be needed.
- Practice what you preach. It’s no good defining boundaries and acceptable behaviours if yours contradicts that. It’s a double standard that undermines your credibility and the trust the people you lead have in you. Why would anybody feel comfortable or willing to approach you for help if you are abusive, insulting, dishonest or lack integrity?
- Embody honesty and integrity. These principles are the foundation of effective leadership. It doesn’t mean that you will always disclose every snippet of information to your team but you will communicate openly and truthfully, taking care of sensitivities and doing so in line with your principles. When we see our leaders stand up for what they believe in and doing so in a professional manner, we respect them. The same with performance feedback and conflict. Leaders need to stand up for their team, they need to speak on behalf of those who lack confidence and they need to confront it with an unbiased and transparent approach.
- Nip conflict in the bud by mediating conflict. Conflict is a normal part of inhabiting the same space. As a leader, you have a birds eye view of any team and you can identify tensions between colleagues. There may be times when you want to wait and see whether your intervention is necessary to resolve it. Sometimes, they resolve themself. If, however, you see conflict escalating, step in to confront and mediate without taking sides. Avoid making judgements or treating your team members like children and be curious about the conflict. Is this really about a colleague’s tardiness to meetings which angers another or is it about more fundamental principles like respecting others? Listen, summarise, ask open ended questions and encourage them to find solutions.
- Make time for people. One of my favourite leaders makes time every Friday morning for one hour to listen to his staff. Whether in person or in a teams call, you can discuss anything you want with him. He does this to let people know he is available; he is listening and he is present. It’s also time efficient because people know when they can talk to him instead of calling him unexpectedly which disrupts his day.
- Understand that conflict between people helps you see what is important to them. This is vital in getting to the core of what motivates certain individuals and how you can arrange work tasks to suit certain characteristics. When somebody responds in an emotional way and they are willing to enter into conflict, something important to them is spurring them on. This is valuable knowledge that can help you manage people better.
- Be empathetic. Don’t just use phrases that convey it, be genuine about putting yourself in their position. If two colleagues are arguing over ownership of certain responsibilities, have empathy for their frustration. Maybe one of them wants a promotion and the other wants recognition and appreciation. We all have egos; we all want to progress, and we all want to be valued. If you can identify with them and express it sensitively, as a leader your credibility will increase, and your conflict resolution skills will be sharpened.
Don’t forget, you’re only human too and you don’t always get it right. But once you do get it right, you’ll have balanced, content and secure staff members who trust and respect you. And there’s no salary in the world that can compete with that.
As always, let me know what you think. I’d love to read your comments!