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HR Guide: Conflict Management Between Bosses and Employees

Mohamad Danial bin Ab. Khalil
by Mohamad Danial bin Ab. Khalil
Aug 06, 2020 at 4:22 PM

There are times when you can identify that a certain employee is not getting along well with their boss. Even though you have useful advice for both of them,  you still think they could settle their differences before you needed to step in. 

But what if one day you found out that you must intervene and resolve the conflict by yourself? It's possible to stop them from arguing but is their relationship salvageable?

Conflict management involving employers and employees can be challenging. Supervisors and subordinates don't always know what to expect from one another. When communication breaks down, the chances for resolution drastically go down which makes a separation necessary. 


The imbalance in power

The nature of the employer-employee relationship is an imbalance in power. Power is about what people need and their options for getting those needs met. 

For example, an employer needs employees to perform their jobs effectively while employees need their employer's approval of and recognition for a job well done. When both parties know each other's needs, they can communicate with each other through mutual understanding and respect.

But, when the power imbalance stops working, both parties can become defensive and work to maintain their positions. The employee will see HR and the employer as allies and therefore part of the problem rather than the solution. Employers probably think HR is on their side because both are members of the management team. 


This calls for a conflict resolution plan

When behaviour violates the company's policy on workplace conduct, that's when HR have to get involved. In order to avoid the assumption that you are favouring one party over the other, you should set up a conflict resolution program. 

Mediators in the program help the parties move from conflict to resolution and oversee the procedure. As a mediator, HR's ultimate goal is to get the parties to change how they interact with each other. HR leaders often play the role of in-house mediators, since they are familiar with the parties. 

But familiarity can be both an advantage or a disadvantage. Mediation needs an objective view of each party's personality, work style, habits, expressions and other traits. A biased opinion defeats the point of mediation.

These should be the goals for an experienced mediator:

  • Get both parties to stop thinking about past arguments, slights, disagreements and other negative behaviours as a first step toward encouraging more positive thinking.
  • Find out what both parties want out of mediation and ask each one separately.
  • Be realistic about the outcome and don't expect behaviours to change overnight.
  • Encourage the parties to continue the process long after the end of the mediator's direct involvement. The mediator's purpose is to keep the parties talking and listening to each other. 

woman punching man with boxing glove
A physical fight in the workplace is the last thing you need.

The process to manage conflicts between bosses and employees

In order to achieve the goals above, the mediator must first go through this process:


1. Identify the moment when a conflict occurs

Were you aware that an employee is not that amicable towards their superior? Did they change their attitude in any way? If this behaviour is persistent and you see this person work well with others while avoiding the boss, it's not a personal problem.

They're upset about something, and it is the HR's duty to find out what it is before the situation escalates. Invite the employee and ask them how they're handling their work and what problems they are facing. Lead the conversation with general guidelines and ask about the good and bad sides of their jobs.

Then, ask if they have faced any conflict situations with coworkers and superiors. Do they feel like the hierarchy in the team works? Maintain a friendly tone so they'll be more open to giving their opinion,


2. Look for the reasons

What caused the employee to raise the workplace conflict? Was it the behaviour of their supervisor? Or was it their own ego? If you realise they are angry because of the decisions the boss made, it's time to talk to the one in charge.

Have a meaningful conversation that will make them see the point. Tell them you understand their point of view, but explain that they need to solve the conflict. If the one in charge is not responsible for the situation, proceed to the next point.


3. Take a step back and see the big picture

There's a smooth method to solve a conflict: explain why they need to control themselves. If an employee is annoyed by the distribution of tasks or other decisions you have made, explain how they contribute towards the big picture.

An HR manager is also a mediator who needs to bring people back to reality. Take their attention away from the conflict situation and bring it back to the goals.


4. Setting boundaries

Every employee handles frustration differently. There are two ways to handle frustration:

  • Keep things inside; or
  • inflate the situation. 

You should always look out for the second method. If you notice that someone is crossing the line with provocation, harsh comments and passive aggression, you need to set the limits.

Tell everyone that you understand the situation and you're doing your best to solve it, but you need them to keep their heads cold and keep the main goals of the organisation into perspective.


5. Organise consistent coaching

If discussions don't work, then mentoring and coaching sessions will help the employees and bosses to work well together. As an HR manager, you have a responsibility to manage conflict management between employees and employers, but you should also support the professional growth of each team member. 

Mastering conflict management is part of their growth. These coaching sessions will help to recognise conflicts, respect the boundaries, and prevent other unwanted situations from arising.


These are the steps to effective conflict management. Analysing the situation in your organisation is the first step towards harmony. 


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Sources: HRAcuity & hppy

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