Effective business leaders know the value of diverse teams. They are more productive, more creative, and more innovative than homogenous teams where everyone has the same perspective and approach to problem solving. However, diverse teams can often experience conflict. A variety of unique perspectives often means those perspectives are in direct opposition. In order to navigate these situations, leaders must master conflict management. The first step of the process is knowing just when to step in to facilitate a resolution.

Determining When to Intervene in Employee Conflict

Managing conflict is not about becoming a referee, but rather fostering healthy communication that leads to productive interactions. Managers must know when to let their team members work it out themselves, and when to step in to help resolve the situation. Some guidelines to help you make that determination include:

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  • Wait to be asked – It can be very tempting to intervene the moment you see a conflict arise, but it is important to wait to be invited in to the situation. Generally, people don’t like third parties stepping in without permission. If you have real concerns, you can ask the parties if they need your assistance. Say, “I have observed XYZ, and I wanted to ask you if you feel you can have the matter resolved before the project deadline?” This shows the employees that you see what’s going on, you trust them to resolve it themselves, but you are available to step in, if needed.
  • Do not ignore conflict – Waiting to be asked to intervene does not mean ignoring the conflict. Always keep an eye on the situation from a distance, and look for opportunities to facilitate communication between conflicting parties.
  • Never take sides – Conflict is not about who is right and who is wrong, therefore conflict management is about resolution, not agreement. It is very important that a leader never appear to be favoring one side over the other. Remain a neutral party. Your role is to facilitate communication and resolution, not choose a winner or loser.
  • Create opportunities for communication – Communication is often at the heart of every conflict. In order to encourage team members to resolve their own conflicts, create opportunities for them to work it out. You may assign them to the same project, for example, or get them together for a meeting to hash out their differences.

When Conflict Goes Too Far

Managing conflict involves walking a fine line. While it is important to let your team members sort things out themselves, it’s equally important not to allow bullying in the workplace. Healthy conflict is one thing, but leaders should never allow a situation to escalate into harassment. Employees have the right to feel safe at work, and their emotional safety is just as important as their physical safety. When someone feels bullied by another employee, they may feel their only recourse is seek out new opportunities or worse – take legal action against the company for allowing the harassing behavior. Know the difference between healthy conflict and bullying, and always step in when you feel someone is bordering on abusive language or behavior.

Conflict management is an art that can take years to perfect. No two employee conflicts are the same, and leaders must approach each situation with a fresh perspective. The first step is to know when to step in and when to hold back. Give employees the space to try and resolve their issues on their own, but be ready to step in to promote healthy communication that leads to productive resolution.