Leading Through Conflict: Tips to handling contention in the workplace

By Chuck Kelly | May 15, 2022
Illustration of three workers yelling at two other workers against a red background. Image by Getty Images / hofred.
In a leadership role, it is very easy to say, “Here’s the job and let’s get it done.” Today’s worker may not react to that in a positive way because they may seek more involvement and input as well as some autonomy in completing those tasks.




In a leadership role, it is very easy to say, “Here’s the job and let’s get it done.” Today’s worker may not react to that in a positive way because they may seek more involvement and input as well as some autonomy in completing those tasks.

Differing expectations can lead to a clash between employees or the employee and management. You may wonder, how can there be conflict in a simple job? We all react differently to work assignments, and something that may be nothing to you can set off a negative response in someone else. For seasoned leaders, managing through conflict is not something new, but how we address it today is vastly different than how we did years ago.

In the construction industry, where many organizations are under a labor agreement, approaches to dealing with conflict are spelled out in the labor contract. These traditional methods involve a formal stepped disciplinary process that would include a verbal warning, written warning, suspension and ultimately termination, or a formalized grievance procedure. In either case, your actions and responses are straightforward.

To lead successfully through conflict, I suggest stepping outside the box of prescribed behaviors and looking at other methods. Alternative dispute resolution has been around for some time and is often successful in settling disputes before they get to the official bargained process level.

Methods for success

How do we incorporate alternative methods into our leadership style? How can we succeed in today’s climate? Can we adapt to our new environment? Can we admit that to succeed we must change our leadership style? These are all questions we have asked ourselves at some point. If we truly believe in what we do, the answer to that last one is yes, even when dealing with conflict.

When conflicts arise on the job, it is up to you, the leader, to address them. You don’t need to fix everything yourself, but you must take the leadership role and use the best methods at your disposal to solve the problem. We all must learn to communicate and listen more while leading through our personal actions. All too often, conflict is about not understanding the other individuals’ perspectives. Our perception of the issue may be entirely different than the other party’s.

This is a time where the old adage “put yourself in their shoes” really does apply. If we can take a step back, look at things objectively and leave out our own bias, we have a greater opportunity to solve the conflict. Communicating clearly and concisely achieves a better understanding from our workforce. To prevent conflict between you and your team and communicate in a more open manner, I suggest you use a simple three-step method.

  1. Communicate what the job is (upgrade transformer, install service drop, etc.)

  2. Discuss why you are doing the job (new construction, customer request, etc.)

  3. Ask the crew what they believe is the best way to achieve the most positive and productive result.

Be inclusive

This third point brings employees into the decision process and demonstrates that you believe they add value to the task’s success. Having this discussion enables you to pick the best method of completing the job. While all jobs have set procedures, there are many ways that your employees have been doing them over the course of their careers. Maybe having this discussion can lead to improving a particular work method, or it might reinforce the method you may be advocating for.

By incorporating this leadership approach, you can potentially head off any conflict that may arise when new jobs are scheduled. This style of leadership is not just for specific work or conflict situations. I have incorporated it into my everyday interactions with my colleagues. When you communicate clearly and listen actively to your audience, you can achieve greater success. Listening actively is a skill that can assist you immensely in your leadership role and one that I will touch on in future columns.

Header image by Getty Images / hofred.

About The Author

KELLY, president of Kelly Consulting & Mediation Services, has worked with utility industry leaders on safety, labor relations and human resources for more than 30 years. Reach him at 540-686-0118 or [email protected]

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