The Role of Senior Leadership in Conflict Resolution When Mistakes Happen in the Workplace — 5 Steps

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By Craig Goodliffe, Founder & CEO — Cyberbacker 

If you’ve led projects or managed teams in any industry, you’ve seen bad decisions and the resulting conflicts they can bring about in the workplace. In fact, research shows us that the average employee in the US makes 118 mistakes every year. 

One study of 2,000 employees reveals that one in five made critical mistakes at work, and 12 percent have cost their company money. These mistakes included things such as “replying all” to a private email, leaving sensitive documents unguarded for others to see, and saying something inappropriate before muting the call or hanging up properly. According to the study, these mistakes leave almost half of the employees who made them feeling stressed and panicked.

When you notice frustrations running high, there is a good chance that one person’s mistake spawned an argument and set off an emotional reaction in the team. This is understandable; mistakes are stressful. 

As a leader — and someone who has made plenty of my own mistakes — I have developed five steps to resolve workplace conflict and get teams back on track after an error in judgment.

Step 1: Utilize empathy to remain concentrated on the problem, not the person

Empathy is one of the most important tools in any leader’s toolkit when it comes to conflict resolution. Empathy is about understanding and being understood. It’s your job to understand the other person’s perspective, put yourself in their shoes, and see where they are coming from.

If you want to lead with empathy, you need to listen with the intent to understand. Empathy isn’t about feeling sorry for someone or merely sympathizing with their situation — it’s about asking the questions that help you understand why your coworkers feel and think the way they do. 

When you listen empathetically, you don’t judge others based on what they’re saying. Instead, you focus on solutions that resolve the problem and enable the person who made the mistake to feel better.

Step 2: Identify the key pain points at the root of the issue

Next, you need to take a hard look at what caused the problem. Don’t start looking for solutions until you thoroughly understand the issue.

To understand the problem, you need to dive into the root of the underlying issue. By defining the pain points behind the problem, you can better prevent similar mistakes from recurring in the future. 

Pain points are those areas where people feel frustrated or upset because something isn’t working as it should. Not only do they frequently cause mistakes in the workplace — such as working without adequate resources, support, or training — they also often entail poorly defined processes and procedures, excessive workloads, and unrealistic deadlines.

Step 3: Turn the focus from “you” to “we” during conversations with team members

Now that you’re in the right mindset, it’s time to turn your “you” conversations into “we” conversations. To achieve this, focus your conversation on the problem, not the person. 

When employees make mistakes, your language will either alienate them from the team or bring the team back together. By using statements that emphasize “we” instead of “you,” you put the focus back where it belongs — on finding solutions rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame.

As a leader, your first priority is rebuilding trust in the team and making everyone feel like contributing members. Instead of saying, “You have caused the team to be behind schedule, so how will you fix this?” try saying something to the effect of: “We’re behind schedule, but we are all in this together, so let’s come up with a few potential solutions.”

Step 4: Use mistakes as opportunities for learning and growth

No one will ever entirely eliminate mistakes from the workplace, but everyone can make the effort to view them from a new perspective. If you approach errors as opportunities, you can use them to improve your company’s processes, procedures, employee skills, and culture. 

Mistakes are opportunities to learn, grow, and improve. They’re also a chance to innovate by trying something new. Instead of focusing on what went wrong, think about how the situation can help everyone improve their performance as they go forward.

Step 5: Generate actionable steps to resolve the issue for good

Once you’ve identified the problem and its causes, it’s time to determine how to move forward and improve things. In order to do this effectively, leaders must be proactive rather than reactive. Instead of reacting to the fallout of each incident as it arises, focus on what you will do differently next time.

Mistakes are often an indication that there’s something new for us to learn about ourselves or our environment. When we stay open-minded enough to see this opportunity in its full potential, we can take advantage of it by learning and moving forward with greater awareness and understanding.

Mistakes are bound to happen in the workplace. As a leader, your job is to help your employees learn from those mistakes and move forward in a positive way to help them develop as professionals and make them more engaged with their work and the company. 

Addressing mistakes is never easy, but by demonstrating empathy, defining pain points, rebuilding trust, helping the team to learn, and providing solutions for the future, you will keep your team together and get them moving forward as one unit.

About the Author

Craig Goodliffe is the CEO and Founder of Cyberbacker, the leading provider of world-class administrative support and virtual assistant services from anywhere in the world to anyone in the world. Goodliffe is an expert on business development and shares his insight as a MAPS coach who helps clients earn seven-figure incomes.

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