Celebrate Women’s History Month
Applying Inclusive Leadership to Conflict Resolution
The variety of perspectives and backgrounds that can drive greater workplace creativity and innovation — the kind of variety we celebrate during Women’s History Month as we focus on key contributions of women in all facets of society — can also make it harder to get team members all pulling in the same direction.
For women leaders especially, who research shows are often penalized for the same take-charge behaviors for which men are praised, stepping up to manage conflict in ways that bring people together and protect productivity and quality of work can be especially important to your credibility as a leader.
“To start, effective conflict resolution strategies protect working relationships,” according to information shared by St. Catherine University in the UK. “By giving people a process for addressing differences in respectful ways, inclusive leaders help employees come to amicable understandings. This helps people in conflict gain insights about one another and keep professional relationships intact.”
These concepts can help you approach conflict management as a productive process that can foster feelings of inclusion and belonging rather than discord.
- Use your people-reading skills. When you know team members well and pay close attention to what they say and how they say it (including body language) you will be more likely to pick up on cues that help you spot tension early.
Women may be especially well suited to detecting simmering conflict because research shows they are, on average, better at imagining what others are thinking and feeling. A recent study led by Cambridge University in England, in collaboration with several other universities, found that females scored significantly higher than males, on average, on empathy.
- Consider your biases. Take time for self-examination before meeting with those in conflict. Consider whether you have any particular biases toward, for example, a male or female employee’s point of view, new or longer-serving employees, those from particular ethnic or racial backgrounds, or even people with particular professional expertise. Also consider whether underrepresented team members have enough trust in you as their manager to speak openly about workplace issues.
- Talk one-on-one first. A manager’s first reaction to conflict among team members is often, “Let’s come together and hash this out.” But the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) recommends meeting with individuals first. This can reduce tension by providing people with the safety to have their say without being interrupted or triggered by others. The more serious and long-standing the issue, the more important it may be to hear from individuals first.
- Listen deeply. Even if you suspect one viewpoint is more closely aligned with yours, treat all parties fairly and listen to all sides. This will ensure that you understand the issues fully and consider perspectives beyond your own. By listening deeply without interrupting or injecting your opinions yet, you will also gain a sense of how well each individual can articulate the issues, whether they are approaching the conflict in a constructive way, and if they are capable of considering perspectives beyond their own. That information may help you navigate toward a better solution and provide insight into areas for coaching.
- Come together on neutral ground with strong parameters. Once you decide to bring parties together, set ground rules in advance, communicate them clearly and require agreement to the format before you begin. These will include the obvious, such as listening to one another, speaking respectfully and not interrupting. But introducing a little more creativity can also help. You might ask each party to arrive with one example of how they have worked together effectively in the past. Or, suggest they come with at least one possible solution they have not mentioned previously. Anything that helps people pivot to creativity and brainstorming rather than protecting entrenched positions can open new avenues to problem solving.
Where you choose to meet can also help set the tone for a more productive outcome. Choose a quiet place that allows for privacy but avoid either party’s “home turf.” You might also choose a neutral location, such a conference room, rather than your office to avoid team members feeling as if they are being called into the principal’s office.
- Project confidence. As the person in charge, you’ve earned the right to exert influence and make decisions in difficult situations. But research shows women tend to experience greater anxiety in these settings than men. Positive priming can increase confidence and decrease anxiety. Prior to a difficult conversation, think about something positive or engage in a joyful activity to increase positive emotions that can lead to greater openness, creativity and confidence. You might suggest those involved practice positive priming too as it’s been shown to increase willingness to collaborate.
Conflict will happen. It may even happen more often within teams of diverse individuals who bring a robust range of experiences and skills to the table. As a leader, your role is to make room for diverse thought while keeping your antennae poised to pick up unhealthy discord and making it clear that you can confidently navigate conflict when it does arise to drive meaningful resolutions.