Navigating tensions at work as a Leader

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

As we start to return to work it’s almost a given that tensions that we are seeing and experiencing in America today will come into the workplace. Not only does the company need to be prepared, but you as a Leader need to understand how you are going to manage these differences and still ensure your team is productive.

Whether you have two people sitting next to each other who have differing opinions regarding wearing a mask or you have people openly arguing about whose lives matter and validity of rioting, if you don’t have a plan on how to manage these situations then the culture you have been working so hard to build will disappear in a heartbeat.

The Leader who prepares will have the team that out performs because they feel safe and supported.

Most of my writing has been about how you build a team and become a Connected Leader. And I’m not going to stray from this, but I believe this is uncharted territory for us all. As a Leader, you will need to walk the tight rope of understanding other’s points of view at an entirely different level. These differences are heavily charged that come with a wide range of emotions, including fear.

So, what to do when the differences become arguments or outbursts at work?

Mindset — First things first, you must have a mindset that is open and inclusive. On a personal level you can have whatever opinion you want, however you must come to grips that you are potentially going to see a side of people that might disappoint you because it differs from your own personal beliefs. A good Leader will be able to put that aside and look at their team as a group of people who are there for a shared common goal of being productive. How they feel about wearing a mask or any movement does not affect what they are there to do. If you can’t get yourself prepared mentally, you will fail leading your team through this emotional time.

Hold a Team Meeting — As soon as the team arrives back to work, call everyone together and lay the ground rules. If it were my team, it would look something like this:

  • I would confirm that this is a place of work and that while everyone may have differing opinions regarding the state of America today, we have a common goal which is to work as a team and ensure the output of the team is at a high quality just like it always has been

  • I would acknowledge that everyone has different points of view and that has ALWAYS been the case. Everyone on the team has their own personal views to a myriad of personal situations, but they are just that…they are personal points of view.

  • I would acknowledge that there is a lot happening with regards to COVID-19 and BLM movements. And to state, again, that everyone is entitled to their own personal opinion, no matter how much someone thinks they are right or grounded in fact. It’s personal and doesn’t belong in the workplace.

  • Then I would refer to the company policies when it comes to safety regarding COVID-19. Things to address are distancing, cleaning, mask requirements.

Address problems immediately — If an outburst takes place, you need to face it immediately. The team needs to know that you as their Leader are going to ensure that they are in a safe work environment. If you let a problem or arguments take place, you will lose all credibility with your team.

De-escalate — If an argument takes place, those arguing need to be moved to a room so a conversation can take place. You as the Leader needs to make sure that it’s a conversation and not an argument. If it were me, it would look something like this:

  • I would address that they have different points of view and that no matter what they are on the same team and it is expected that they will treat each other respectfully at work

  • If it’s a case of differing opinion, remind them that this is a place of work and their personal opinions need to stay out of the workplace. I would also remind them that we all have differing personal opinions. It’s just that now a few of them are out in the open, it’s the same person they’ve been working with for months/years. That the only thing they need to respect while here is the other person’s work ethic and how they treat themselves and others in the workplace.

  • If it’s a case of safety, I would always err on the side of caution but making sure that they understand that it’s not taking sides, it’s just being careful. For example, if someone feels nervous about the proximity of someone looking over their shoulder while working through a problem then I would side with making sure they stay 6 feet back. I would also encourage a different kind of discussion where maybe they share screens if a computer screen needs to be involved, that way they can stay at a safe distance.

Refer to company policies — Whenever possible, refer to company policies. Some may be newly created, so you will need to bring yourself and the team up to date. Also, you may need to refer to your HR team on which way to go. For example, your company might have a policy that everyone must wear a mask, but you have an employee who arrives at work wearing a mask that makes a statement about their views. This may mean you need to refer to your dress code policy. If there is no dress code policy, then get HR involved immediately. If you are a small company, establish a dress code policy. One that states no attire with stamps or logos that could be deemed as inappropriate or offensive.

Get your manager involved — There’s nothing worse than creating a plan on how to manage escalations only to have your own boss undermine your process. At the very least you need to make them aware of how you want to handle any issues. If you have a boss that “doesn’t want to hear it”, too bad. Force a meeting or put it in an email and definitely loop in HR.

Your number one goal as a Leader of a team is to ensure that your team performs to the best of their ability. That means when times are stressful, you need to prepare for conflicts and how you are going to handle them. The Leader who prepares will have the team that out performs because they feel safe and supported.