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How HR Can Help Resolve Conflicts Between Managers

September 29, 2020
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When there’s conflict in an office, that negatively can quickly seep out and create an unhealthy work environment for everyone. And when the disagreements occur between managers, it can have an especially negative impact on colleagues, direct reports, and even the entire team.

“Energy is contagious and this is not the type of thing we want to spread,” said Elene Cafasso, a Master Certified Coach (MCC) at executive coaching company Enerpace, Inc. “It also makes others feel unsafe if there is a violation of company policies and values.”

As toxic as this type of situation can become, undermining productivity and the equanimity of employees, the good news is that Human Resources professionals at an organization have the ability to ameliorate these types of conflict, thus improving the overall work environment. They can do this by acting as a neutral party as they assist managers in working out their differences. By intervening in this way, HR can help prevent conflict from snowballing and adversely affecting everyone in the office.

“More often than not, conflict arises between managers due to the unhelpful interactions of various members of their teams,” said Cory Colton, principal executive coach at executive leader and group coaching firm Inflection Point Coaching. Managers then move to a protective stance, he explained, often reacting to protect their staff. 

“Human Resources professionals can support the managers in resolving this by first understanding the reason for the conflict, and then helping [the parties in conflict] shift their perspective from the conflict itself, toward their shared goals and common values,” Colton said.

If managers at your company are consistently butting heads, here’s how to resolve the conflicts before they become unmanageable.

1. Use mediation. 

Mediation is helpful in resolving more difficult conflicts because the mediator, who is a neutral party, can maintain peace and calm during tough conversations. While mediation processes differ, they are essentially comprised of sharing perspectives, identifying issues and interests, and negotiating a durable, accountable solution, explained Doug Noll, lawyer, professional mediator, and cofounder of Prison of Peace, an organization that trains prison inmates to peacefully resolve conflicts in prison.

To begin the mediation process, you first need to obtain the consent of both parties involved to meet with you and work out their differences, said Noll. Logistically, you could then all sit down in a private conference room, or conduct this session remotely by Zoom.

Noll also suggested that before commencing, both parties should agree to let one person speak at a time without interruption, and commit to telling the truth and being respectful of one other. He also advised that each person repeat what the other one said before they speak.

This can be paraphrasing, as long as the manager is accurately depicting what the other one said. It shows they are listening to one another, which they may not have been able to do before.

For instance, one manager might say, “I’m upset that each month, the sales team uses the conference room and doesn’t clean up after themselves. I feel disrespected.” The other manager would then say, “They feel upset and disrespected because the sales team leaves the conference room dirty.”

This exercise “ensures that the speaker is heard and their emotional experiences are validated,” Noll said.

2. Get to the root of the problem.

If mediation doesn’t work, you can then engage in a process called interest-based negotiation, in which you get to the root of the conflict by finding out what each person needs for it to be resolved. 

“Do not allow the people to state [their] positions. Instead, ask them what good things would happen to them if their position were accepted,” Noll said. 

Noll gave the following example to illustrate how this would look in practice: Manager A says, “If Manager B would just stop using the printer so often I wouldn't have to buy so much ink.” Manager A’s position is that he does not want to buy so much ink.

What you really want to know is what good things would happen to Manager A if they didn’t have to buy so much ink. Manager A’s interest could be in saving time or not being around someone who overuses and disrespects resources, for example. If Manager A said they wanted to save money, that would be their position. Their interests might be financial responsibility, accountability, or reduced anxiety and stress, to name a few.

“We can almost always satisfy interests,” said Noll. “Positions, on the other hand, often have to be compromised, which does not make for a good resolution of the conflict. Drill down to get to the real interests, goals, needs, and desires.”

3. Find common ground.

Managers have a job to do, and conflict may arise when they disagree on the best way to go about it. However, they need to be on the same page about their core job functions. HR can bring up this integral perspective when helping them work out their differences.

“To resolve conflicts between managers, there must be either mutual respect, or a mutual goal. [It’s] better if there is both, but while we may be able to focus on a common goal, we may not be able to achieve mutual respect,” said Colton.

“The managers and their teams were hired to do a job and deliver success for the company. In that case the company may not need the managers to respect each other, but they do need them to deliver,” he said.

In order to resolve a conflict, HR could bring up the fact that two sales managers have the same goal, which is to boost the company’s bottom line. HR may point out that by working together, the team would be that much stronger, and there would be improved results, such as an increase in sales. This conversation could be conducted in a private meeting between the two parties, with the goal of emphasizing that by working out their differences, the company overall will benefit — not just them.

4. Follow the “Three C’s.”

When Jeremy Pollack, founder of Pollack Peacebuilding Systems, a conflict resolution consulting firm, finds himself in a difficult conversation with coworkers, he practices the “Three C’s,” which stands for Calmness, Care, and Curiosity. Teaching managers to follow these guidelines as well can improve interactions as you work to resolve conflict.

As an HR professional, you can encourage the managers in conflict to remain calm and not erupt emotionally, as that will only escalate the tension, said Pollack. You can also emphasize the need to be caring and recognize that the other party has feelings, beliefs, and goals, too, and is probably defensive because they are in a place of pain or fear.

Pollack also said it’s important to facilitate curiosity in these types of conversations, and remind the managers involved to engage in the discussion from a place of open-minded interest. Finally, encourage managers to “ask questions and seek to learn rather than to tell, convince, or prove [they] are right. Curiosity requires presence, interest, and especially listening,” noted Pollack.

5. Consider everyone’s perspectives.

Managers, who are already high achievers, may be competitive and want to win an argument. In the push to win, they might wind up trampling over the other person and not hearing them out.

“As long as this desire [to win] exists, there won't be a lot of progress made on resolving the argument,” said Tory Gray, CEO of The Gray Dot Company, a digital marketing consulting company. “In fact, it's often the reason why conflicts go unresolved for a long time, and worse, it's often what leads to feuds and grudges.” 

HR can play a role here by guaranteeing that everyone has a voice, and seeing to it that both managers feel like they came out on top.

“Try to fight for the idea that everyone can win,” said Gray. “[You can do that by] working through the issue and making sure everyone's opinions and perspectives are taken into account. There is such a thing as a ‘win-win’ conflict resolution, and that occurs when a conflict is calmly and carefully resolved.”

6. Deal with conflicts thoughtfully, not swiftly.

Though you may want to resolve issues as quickly as possible, it’s better to work through them thoughtfully, even if this takes more time, advised Katherine King, founder of corporate consultancy firm Invisible Culture.

“Often managers make problems worse by thinking they need to nip things in the bud, thereby dealing with the symptom and not the actual problem,” said King. “Trying to squash a conflict might suppress an underlying team dynamic that is better addressed.”

For instance, when a team hits a roadblock because they can’t reach a consensus, they will look to the manager to make the final decision. “How the manager handles it will determine whether or not they are addressing the symptom or the real problem,” said King. “If the manager plays the tie-breaking rescuer all the time to head off conflict, they aren’t addressing the underlying causes for the communications blockages occurring. Usually managers are hired for their technical ability, not their experience in soft skills [like communication and conflict resolution].”

However, King said that a savvy manager will dig deeper, possibly even creating a customized training and coaching program that supports team evolution.

“It isn’t natural for people who are different from one another to get along, but it is natural for them to want to,” she said. “Leveraging the good-will of teammates and providing development is a win-win for all parties.”

According to King, it’s natural to have conflict in the workplace, and normalizing it will make it less taboo. Issues should be raised within a safe and healthy feedback loop, which means that HR needs to “slow down and give relationship management the gravitas it deserves,” she said.

7. Minimize conflicts to begin with. 

While conflicts can’t be avoided altogether, having a feedback culture in general can help mitigate disagreements.

“Organizations that adopt a culture of continuous healthy feedback tend not to have conflicts arise out of the blue,” said King. “The reason is that people are in a mindset of continual growth and looking for opportunities to identify how they can be working [together] better. HR departments that are able to foster such a culture usually have the support of the C-suite.”

Noll said it’s crucial that managers meet on a regular basis, with dedicated time allotted to get to know one another, either in person or via Zoom.

“When you know people, you are far less likely to be in conflict. At a neurophysiological level, spending time with people releases oxytocin, which is a trust and bonding neurotransmitter. This is why so many cultures insist on eating and socializing before doing business,” he said.

Furthermore, Noll continued, “The senior leader should have a clear vision for the managers to execute and roles should be well-defined.”

HR can also implement soft skills training to teach employees how to be more emotionally competent, suggested Noll. While these skills, which focus on interpersonal skill-building and emotional competency, may be perceived as touchy-feely, Noll stressed that they are anything but. Instead, he said, they are “essential to high performance and productivity.”

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By using these strategies, HR can minimize conflict between managers as much as possible. But what happens if you’ve tried mediation, resolving issues thoughtfully, and listening to all sides, and the conflict still persists? Then it may be time to look into bringing in conflict resolution services and resources, like mediators or outside firms.

It’s important for HR to do thorough research, as this is an investment, both financially and interpersonally. Whatever outside resources you decide on, be sure to choose ones that have a good reputation and have worked with other reputable companies, and then engage them to help to hash out managers’ issues. Then, everyone involved can get back on track and be productive once again, and a healthy work environment will be restored.