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The Best Interview Questions to Spot Leaders Who Excel at Conflict Resolution

Before you hire people for leadership positions, it’s crucial to gauge their ability to be civil and resolve disputes.

job interview

By the time most candidates for top leadership positions advance to the interview stage, it’s clear they have the required knowledge and experience. But an increasingly important differentiator in the hiring decision is whether candidates will add to or detract from the level of civility in the workplace—and whether they can effectively resolve employee conflicts.

“Conflict resolution could not be more important than it is right now,” says Davonne Helmer, co-leader of the global HR officers practice at ZRG Partners, an executive recruitment firm. “With five generations in the workplace, a completely bifurcated and bizarre political climate, data pointing to a significant slide backwards in diversity policies, and people more stressed, burnt out or on edge than ever before, conflict resolution is critical not just for getting by, but also for getting the best from your team.”

Workplace conflict has become a growing problem for C-suite leaders. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers say they’ve experienced or witnessed incivility in their workplace within the past month, according to new SHRM research. And people who rate their workplace as uncivil are three times more likely to be dissatisfied with their job and twice as likely to leave in the next year.

In addition, a 2022 survey by The Myers-Briggs Company cites a rise in workplace conflict incidents, noting that poor communication and lack of transparency are the top causes of conflict.

Getting in Front of the Problem

The good news is that more companies recognize the potential damage caused by workplace conflict, and they’re leaning on senior management to establish a culture of civility and effective conflict resolution.

“Before COVID, I sometimes worked with organizations that requested I change the word ‘conflict’ to something softer,” says Kimberly Best, a professional conflict mediator at Best Conflict Solutions in Brentwood, Tenn. “Now, people are actively seeking out conflict management skills and processes for managing conflict in their organizations. Conflict is normal. It’s a sign of a problem to solve.”

Senior leaders set the tone for others by demonstrating civil behavior and responding appropriately to incidents of incivility at work.

“I’ve never worked with an organization to help resolve conflict where the attitudes and behaviors of the executive positions hadn’t caused through a trickle-down effect,” Best says. “Leaders need to be willing to bring conflicts to light and have the skills to hold conversations that yield collaborative problem solving.”

Best says that unresolved conflict is the No. 1 factor contributing to turnover among employees. “The cost in time and talent is huge,” she says. “And then there is the elephant in the room—lawsuits.”

Ask About the Past to See the Future

While leaning on senior management to prevent and mediate workplace conflicts is wise, it’s essential to find out whether your leadership candidates have conflict management skills before you hire them. That often comes down to asking proper interview questions.

When gauging an executive candidate’s conflict resolution skills, probe into how the person has managed real-world situations in the past. Examples of potential inquiries to choose from:

  • Tell me about a time when you had to manage conflict between two co-workers. Walk me through the steps you took to manage the conflict.
  • Tell me about a time when you personally faced conflict at work. How did you communicate with the other person, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Tell me about a time when two team members had different perspectives or could not find a resolution.
  • Have you ever had to de-escalate a tense situation between co-workers? What steps did you take?
  • What is your strategy for giving constructive feedback? How well do you receive feedback?
  • Are there times you had a conflict with a supervisor? How did you handle it?
  • How do you ensure that all parties involved in a conflict feel heard and understood?
  • What strategies do you use to maintain a positive working relationship after resolving a conflict?

These types of questions offer insight not only into a candidate’s approach to conflict resolution, but also their communication and problem-solving skills and ability to empathize.

“When dealing with conflicts, we want to see if a person can get to the core of the matter by understanding another’s fears, needs and hopes,” says Lisa Danels, executive director of Human Edge, a senior executive leadership advisory firm. “It’s all about intuitive listening and picking up on what’s beneath the surface. We can’t just dwell on the surface-level arguments or events that have occurred. That won’t really get us anywhere.”

To assess the conflict resolution skills of an executive job candidate, Danels also looks for empathy and the ability to see things from the other person’s perspective.

“It’s crucial to see how invested people are in their relationships and fairness,” she says. “A leader who has integrity while honoring differences and holding others in esteem would make an outstanding conflict resolution executive.”

Linking Emotional Intelligence and Conflict Resolution

However, identifying conflict management skills in applicants isn’t achieved simply through straightforward “How do you handle conflict?” type of inquiries.

“I always tell my clients to use emotional intelligence questions to interview,” says Elena Sarango-Muniz, an HR consultant at Sarango Executive Coaching in Houston. “It’s very difficult to see how their EQ skills have developed if you don’t ask the right questions that dig deep into their behavior under certain specific scenarios, like stress, conflict, chaos, success and risky situations.” 

Sarango-Muniz recommends asking executive job candidates some or all of the following questions to uncover their emotional intelligence, a key part of assessing their ability to resolve disputes. “With additional exploration after each given answer, we can get really deep to uncover who this person is,” she says.

  • If you could improve one facet of your life, what would it be and why? Tell me more, and how do you plan to do it?
  • What keeps you optimistic during the most difficult times? Give a specific recent example.
  • How do you ensure you have really understood someone’s feelings? What is the first step you take? Give me a recent example.
  • What role do your emotions play in your conflict resolution process? How do they challenge your ability to find a solution?

“You want to know if they know themselves,” Sarango-Muniz explains. “Are they self-aware? And therefore, can they establish and maintain healthy relationships with others? Can they assess quickly what is going on when there is conflict?”

Being open to all viewpoints when it comes to conflict resolution at this level is crucial.

“Flexibility is a very important skill an executive should have to be successful,” Sarango-Muniz  adds. “They can manage their emotions and the emotions of others appropriately to solve any conflict that arises.”

Brian O’Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa., and Palmas del Mar, Puerto Rico, when Old Man Winter arrives. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw Hill).



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