Relationships are defined when there is conflict. When things are going well, anyone can manage a relationship - business or personal. It’s when things don’t go as planned that we put them to the test.
An important part of a leader’s job is to mediate conflicts with employees, customers, or vendors. Although we work hard to maintain a collaborative culture at Marco, we are not void of conflict. I consider conflict resolution a personal strength of mine. My leadership experience over the years has taught me that avoiding conflicts can create bigger issues. I’ve never seen anything good come out of unresolved conflicts.
Here are some of the practices that have worked for me when facing common conflicts.
Over the years, I have developed a process of resolving customer “situations” that have been escalated to me. By the time the issue gets to the CEO, it’s usually not going to break the fun meter. This process has worked almost without exception.
1. Evaluate the problem: The emotional and often polarizing nature of conflict often distorts the issue. Understanding the situation requires leaders to look beyond hearsay to validate claims and outline the facts.
2. Listen: After understanding the “issue,” I start the customer meeting by asking them to describe what it would take to reach a satisfactory solution. To ensure I understand their position, I restate it for clarification and document it. You can almost be certain at this point there will be some delta that needs to be resolved.
3. Share your proposal: I develop a solution based on hard facts and come prepared to validate that position. Signed documents, written communications (including emails) and an activity log with names and dates also provide merit to the proposal. In most cases, they reveal information to the customers they did not know.
4. Let customer decide: While I do not believe the customer is always right, I do feel–if you want to retain the customer–they have the right to choose the resolution. After listening to their requests and sharing my position, I tell the customer that I will accept whatever they decide–without conditions. The key point here is no conditions. I leave it in their hands and they almost always pick a fair solution. More times than not, it is closer than expected to my proposal. Only one time that I recall did a customer choose his initial solution. I honored it without any compromise, but it did define our relationship going forward.
I challenge you next time you’re in a conflict with a client to be well-prepared and try this approach to see if it works for you. I think you’ll be surprised by the outcome.
Now, to some degree this process changes when resolving employee conflict because this is not between two businesses, it’s between two people. Empathy becomes essential to addressing employee issues. I always try to put myself in the employee’s shoes.
Again, when escalated to the CEO level, these can be complex issues with the potential for undesirable outcomes for both parties. It is essential if you want to retain the employee that you handle the matter empathetically and professionally. Again be well prepared with the facts and be willing to compromise. On the other hand, you may want to take this as an opportunity to terminate an unproductive relationship.
For example, there have been a number of times where I have had to make a staffing change that requires an employee to move from a management position to a nonsupervisory position. In each of these cases, we wanted to retain the individual. I try not to make pay an issue, and in most cases leave it the same. I certainly recognize it costs the company in the short-term, but I have found that it is a good investment to keep the talent we want on our team.
Don’t Use Email to Resolve Conflict!
It’s essential to abandon email communication at the first sign of conflict. While it provides real-time response, it can allow a conflict to escalate because words can easily be misunderstood and work against you. The ideal conflict resolution requires meeting in person, or at the very least over the phone. Conflicts are personal and require personal attention.
I think my ability to effectively resolve conflicts has helped develop trust in the organization so that if there is an issue, people know they will be fairly treated. Again, relationships are defined when there is conflict, not when things are going as planned. My advice is to not avoid conflict, but to use it as an opportunity to build a culture of fairness and trust.