Leadership and conflict go hand in hand. As a manager or supervisor, it is guaranteed that you will have to deal with workplace disputes at some point or another. And though natural to the work environment, conflict between employees can serve a painful blow to morale and productivity, as well as your reputation as the leader, if it isn’t handled correctly.

You should be able to trust your employees to work out the minor issues among themselves in a professional and respectful manner. However, the larger, more complex problems will most-assuredly fall in your hands, and you need to be prepared to face them.

As a leader, there are three levels of conflict resolution that you’re responsible for maintaining: Pre-Conflict, Present Conflict, and Post-Conflict. Within each of these levels there exists practices and standards that, when executed properly, will ensure any problems between employees are dealt with quickly and effectively.

Pre-Conflict: Stopping the Problem Before it Starts
Though you won’t be able to prevent every dispute that arises in the workplace, there are certain standards you can put into place that will kill the problem before it has a chance to snowball into a major issue.

The first, most important thing you can do is set clear, concise expectations and enforce them with consistency. This includes guidelines on behavior, etiquette, responsibility, and the chain of command so that each employee knows their job, their place, and the proper channels to go through for any questions, problems, or needs.

These expectations should be stated clearly in the employee handbook or some other official, accessible document. You should also be sure to present your expectations through training, seminars, or company-wide meetings. This will ensure that everyone is on the same page and it will allow the employee ample time to raise any questions they may have about their role and expectations. It also allows you, the leader, a set of guidelines on which you can judge an employee’s actions with an unbiased perspective.

Secondly, you’ll want to establish a reporting system. This is a specific route that employees can take to report any problems they may have with either their job or another co-worker in a dignified, procedural, and confidential manner. This allows employees the opportunity to address an issue before it blows out of proportion.

Present Conflict: Dealing With a Problem Head On
Even with preventative measures in place, some problems are going to fall through the cracks. When they do, it will be your job as the leader to resolve it as quickly and efficiently as possible.

To do this, you’ll need to follow three steps:

Under no circumstances should you allow an issue to drag on. If it hasn’t been resolved by the time it reaches your ears, chances are it requires your intervention. When you become aware of a workplace dispute, address it immediately. If you don’t, the problem will continue to grow and become more difficult to resolve.

Once you’ve acknowledged the issue, privately engage the employees involved with the dispute, as well as anyone attached to it. In this situation, communication is crucial. It’s important you ask plenty of questions and allow the employee to give their side of the story. You should not only inquire about the issue at hand, but also whether or not the employee has taken the proper actions to meet all of their expectations.

Lastly, after you’ve addressed the issue with your employees, you should act quickly, albeit professionally and proportionally. First, you should insist that everyone involved with the problem cease conflict immediately. If necessary, you should take the proper steps to reprimand the employees who were out of line to begin with. You may want to reiterate company policy and remind everyone of the expectations they are required to uphold. Whatever you do, it’s important you remain consistent and impartial.

Post-Conflict: Upholding Morale and Positivity after an Issue is Resolved
Even after a conflict has been resolved, there are likely to be some residual effects you will need to deal with. Friction between the employees involved in the dispute can remain and possibly put a strain or tension on future productivity. To minimize any damage this could cause, you want to radiate positivity throughout the workplace.

While you may have to criticize and reprimand some of the parties involved in the dispute, it’s equally important that you build them up and find a way to compliment the areas where they excel. You’ll also want to directly encourage teamwork, camaraderie, and community with your employees. When you exude a positive outlook, your employees will see that, and it will help them to “bury the hatchet” and move forward in a positive, productive manner.