Startup HR: How to Deal with Conflict

by Tricia Hollyer

Everything would be fine in our team, except for Bob. We’d get that release out on time, if it weren’t for Steven refusing to work with Alan. We’d have made those numbers if Fred didn’t screw up.

Ah, how easy it would be to run a business if we didn’t have to deal with the most complicated element: people. If only our teams could get along flawlessly, with no in-fighting, or drama, or egos. Unfortunately, what makes our business work is also what makes it messy sometimes. Our people.

Conflict between the people in your business is 100% guaranteed, even if at the beginning it feels like everyone is completely on the same track and gets along famously. In fact, if you don’t have conflict surfacing, something is wrong. People should know enough—and care enough—to disagree with each other from time to time. If no one ever lets their frustration show, you likely have a different problem.

The number one mistake managers make in dealing with conflict is ignoring it. It is astonishing how many managers simply will not deal with the situation, and it is the exact way to make it worse.

It will not resolve itself. It will not go away if you leave it alone. It will escalate, and suck more people and more energy into the drama, and before you know it you will have a much more serious problem on your hands.

SEE ALSO: How to Establish What Your Business Stands For

In some cases, managers will choose to fire an employee once it’s gotten to this stage, rather than dealing with it when it is manageable. Why? It’s awkward, messy, and often unclear who is right when two people in a team disagree or don’t get along. As a manager you may not want to get involved in “personal” matters.

But here’s the secret: it’s not personal. If it’s happening in your workplace, it’s affecting your people, productivity, and results. You must confront it head on, as soon as possible.

Once you summon your courage to sit the involved parties down and find out what’s going on, what’s the best way to resolve it? The first golden rule here:

Keep the responsibility where it belongs—with the people having the conflict. You are not a parent, you are a manager. It’s not your job to solve every problem that occurs, it’s your job to set expectations, offer guidance, and hold people accountable for results.

Set expectations: talk to both parties, tell them you expect them to resolve the situation one way or another and that you know they are capable of doing so.

Offer guidance: bring alternative viewpoints, give ideas on how to stay open and consider options, listen when they need to vent.

Hold people accountable for results: don’t let it simmer or go unresolved. They will likely procrastinate meeting to talk about it, and the first conversation may not resolve things. Your job is to calmly and positively reinforce your expectations – they need to figure out how to work together productively.

RELATED: How to Get, and Keep, the Best Ideas from Your People

The reality, however, is that some conflicts won’t get resolved without your intervention. Don’t give in at the first “we can’t!” but if their efforts aren’t working, the second golden rule is:

There are at least three sides to every story. One for each of the two (or more) people directly involved, and one for outside observers. Then of course there’s yours too. Your goal is not to stir up gossip and make the situation bigger by asking everyone under the sun what they think, but don’t make a decision or take action until you know you’ve heard all the relevant perspectives.

No matter how convincing one person may be, be aware of your own biases—you may like one of them more than the other, or agree with the technical opinion or values of one more. Be certain that you hear all sides before you act.

Ultimately it is not necessary for our people to be friends with one another, but they do have to work together respectfully and productively.

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Tricia Hollyer

Tricia Hollyer

Tricia Hollyer is the owner of Compassionate Leadership, a consulting firm that specializes in providing HR expertise, coaching, and management training to fast-growth companies. Prior to starting her own company, Tricia was an HR executive in the technology industry for 18 years, going from startups to buyouts of multi-national public companies like Peer 1 Hosting. She is an expert in people... more

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