Bridge the Divide of Conflict with Direct Reports
Much of my work focuses on organizations and leaders in transition. Often, individuals are transitioning from a member of an internal team to the leader of that team…or the entire organization.
Many personalities reflect on their transition as significant and sweeping – their worlds changing so quickly they can be left feeling like a stranger in their own land. Almost overnight, the playing field changes from interacting as a peer or direct report of a colleague to that of “the boss.” They’re left out of the informal “hall talk” and invitations to gather after work, where only days before they were a part of the inside loop.
To this individual, they’re still the same person who knows and works with the same people, but the hierarchy dynamic has shifted, and with it, the new leader must adapt and grow in how s/he manages interpersonal relationships as well as the challenges, issues, and conflicts that come with it.
It’s in this context that I share the following tips to acclimate to this new reality:
Developing strong interpersonal relationships:
- Help your team get to know you in this new role. Exhibit your leadership brand and capabilities in a way that engenders confidence and trust.
- Go on a ‘listening tour.’ Visit with your colleagues and seek their thoughts and input about priorities and what’s important to them. What do they feel is critical to accomplish in the near term – both for them in their role as well as the team and the organization?
- Keep in mind that groups often make the best decisions because the group process increases commitment to the decision. Help your direct reports develop analytical skills by including them in decision making.
- Develop a culture of experimentation and innovation. Let your people know it’s safe to try new things that support problem solving and excellence…and that you’ll support them.
- Share your vision and leadership agenda with your direct reports and help them see their role in forwarding those priorities. Work to advance the scope of work collectively and celebrate success together along the way.
- Support your team in times of change and transition. If you’re new in your leadership role – now leading people who previously were your peers – this change can be unsettling to those around you. Fear and loss play a large role in resistance to change. Individuals wonder how the adjustment will directly impact them, for example: how will you relate to them differently through this role change and how might their priorities and responsibilities change. Listen and acknowledge those feelings. Often these issues and anxiety arise from a lack of information.
Managing conflict with direct reports:
- Know your part in the conflict: Conflict has multiple sides. Be sure to take ownership of your part in the conflict, and get a clear picture of how you might be contributing. A 360 assessment might be a helpful tool in gathering information to offer insight into your behavior and performance.
- Clarify objectives and expectations: Make sure you’ve made your objectives clear to your direct reports and that you communicate the goal when starting new initiatives. Team members need to know their tasks, the final objectives, and how success will be measured. Have them describe their understanding to confirm alignment. Many performance problems that spark conflict between managers and their team most commonly stem from a misunderstanding of expectations.
- Consider solutions other than your own: Be flexible and think beyond your perspective. View the world through the eyes of your direct reports and try to understand and incorporate their ideas and points of view.
- Know your emotional triggers: All of us have emotional triggers that can result in behavior that creates conflict. Know what sets you off and pay attention to your physical cues such as a rapid heartbeat or a rise in body temperature. Practice techniques to bring these reactions into check and temper your response.
- Move quickly to resolve issues: It’s a natural human tendency to avoid conflict. Be willing to confront situations head on and have ‘courageous conversations’ to develop common ground, arrive at a solution that works for all, and prevent matters from simmering and later erupting into conflict.
- Prepare a strategy for managing the situation: Consider how you establish trust with your direct reports so your communication can be honest and effective and be delivered with respect and empathy. Before engaging in the actual encounter to resolve conflict, reflect on your plan for the interaction and anticipate questions and objections.
Different points of view, values, and ways of working are sure to spark conflict. It’s simply inevitable…and an experience that successful leaders must learn to address. The special relationship between managers and direct reports requires all involved to practice active listening, develop an understanding of multiple perspectives, and possess a willingness to reframe points of view. A focus on behavior and openness to new solutions will go a long way toward building stronger interpersonal relationships and trust, and resolving conflict along the way.
Popejoy, B., & McManigle, B.J. (2002). Managing conflict with direct reports. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.
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About Jeanie Duncan: Jeanie is President of Raven Consulting Group, a business she founded that focuses on organizational change and leadership development in the nonprofit sector. She is a senior consultant for Raffa, a national firm working with nonprofit clients to lead efforts in sustainability and succession planning, executive transition and search. Additionally, Jeanie serves as adjunct faculty for the Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of executive leadership education.