How to Resolve an Employee Conflict With a Supervisor
Conflicts happen in the workplace. Even in workplaces where the employees’ personalities mesh well and management treats employees with respect, disagreements arise and these disagreements can lead to conflict – this is simply human nature. For supervisors, learning how to resolve conflicts is a far more effective tool for cultivating workplace harmony than trying to avoid conflicts altogether.
Knowing how to gracefully and effectively resolve conflicts between an employee and herself is one of the most important leadership skills for a supervisor to develop. Because of the power imbalance between an employee and a supervisor, employees are sometimes hesitant to discuss their grievances with their supervisors, which rarely leads to their issues getting resolved. In fact, it nearly always leads to the employee becoming resentful and his productivity dropping as the issues continue to plague his workdays or become more severe.
A few examples of problems that can cause conflicts to arise between employees and supervisors are:
- Perceived favoritism.
- A lack of direction from the supervisor.
- Harsh criticism from the supervisor.
- Pay disparities.
- A lack of flexibility.
- A toxic workplace environment.
In many cases, conflict resolution between employee and supervisor starts with the supervisor addressing the problem with the employee. This discussion tends to be most successful when it's done in private, though supervisors can also receive valuable information about their teams’ issues through group discussions and anonymous tip folders.
Conflicts that arise between two employees tend to be a bit different from conflicts between employees and supervisors. They can also escalate faster and in different directions because of the lack of power imbalance present in employee-employee relationships. Conflict between two employees examples include:
- Resentment over perceived laziness and “picking up the slack.”
- Personality clashes.
- Harassment and bullying.
- Jealousy over a colleague’s career or personal success.
- Issues of sexism, racism and other types of bigotry.
- Perceptions of colleagues being inconsiderate.
Supervisors may need to step in to resolve conflicts between employees and, when necessary, take disciplinary action against one or both parties. When resolving employee conflicts, a supervisor should always keep in mind that he's setting an example for the rest of his team and demonstrating his ability to be a fair, effective leader.
Useful employee conflict resolution strategies for supervisors and employees alike include:
- Listening carefully. There are multiple sides to every story, and effective resolution is only possible when all sides understand each other’s position.
- Encouraging communication. Supervisors can resolve conflicts much more easily by facilitating an environment where employees feel empowered to discuss their challenges.
- Embracing accountability and forgiveness. Sometimes, there's a party who was clearly in the wrong. This party should hold herself accountable for her actions and her colleagues should be willing to forgive her.
- Focusing on positive change. Acknowledging wrongdoing gives employees and supervisors alike the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. By understanding their mistakes, they can make different choices when similar issues arise in the future.
Ultimately, the goal of proactive conflict resolution is to not just correct the issue that led to the conflict but to reduce its likelihood of happening again. Effective conflict resolution is more than agreeing to disagree or disciplining the party responsible for the problem; it involves finding solutions for the problem that occurred and similar issues that can crop up.
For example, a dispute about how much of a department’s budget should be spent on employee training can be resolved by creating a plan where employees assess their anticipated training needs before each fiscal year and management uses these anticipated needs to plan the budget. If employees know ahead of time that they'll need to learn how to use new software or that the equipment they'll use can be dangerous if it's not used properly, they can advocate for themselves by suggesting a specific training regimen.
For some supervisors, integrating employee conflict resolution strategies into their managerial style requires a mindset shift. They might need to learn how to delegate more effectively or adopt more democratic leadership strategies in place of autocratic ones. Developing the skills necessary for conflict resolution between employee and supervisor is a continual learning process for everybody at an organization, not just its leaders.