Conflict Resolution for Cowards

How much time do you spend intervening in employee disputes?  According to one survey, managers spend, on average, 18% of their time – or almost a full day every week – intervening in employee disputes.  Another study revealed that 65% of performance issues result from strained relationships between employees.    And yet – how many managers receive any training in conflict resolution?

One of the most dreaded responsibilities for a boss is dealing with conflict.  A brewing conflict can turn the most confident manager into a sweating, shaking coward.  This is not surprising since most of us are – let’s face it – conflict avoiders.  Of course, conflicts are inevitable, most of which are the result of miscommunication, personality clashes, and authority issues.  Employees with different goals and perceptions can become territorial and develop personal vendettas, which can ultimately cause valued employees to disengage from their jobs – or leave them permanently.  And, it’s not just the people involved in the conflict that are affected.  A tense office vibe creates added stress for everyone.

Some managers choose to look the other way when they become aware of a conflict, in exchange for short-term peace.  But this will only make things worse in the long run.  At the first sign of conflict, managers need to decide if and when to get involved.  Jump in too soon and you won’t be giving your staff a chance to figure out their own solutions.  If you let a situation fester too long, employee morale and productivity could suffer.

If the parties involved aren’t able to come to a resolution themselves, try mediating the conflict.  Talk to each employee individually to get both sides of the story, with an attempt to get to the underlying issues.  Make sure to use active listening skills, such as attentive body language, good eye contact, and confirming responses, such as:  “Uh huh” or “Yes … go on.”  Ask each employee to repeat what they heard from the other to prevent misunderstandings.  Recognize that the problem presented is not always the actual problem because anger is often used as a defense to cover up fear or hurt.

As the mediator, you can help to de-escalate a conflict by calming both parties down.  According to Jim Melamed, a divorce mediator and trainer:  “You cannot effectively move toward conflict resolution until each participant experiences him/herself to be fully heard with regard to their perspective – what they want and why.”  Make sure to validate feelings and ask questions, such as “What troubles you most about this situation?”, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What would you like to see happen?”   This type of open-ended questioning can help you to uncover the real issues.  Also, check to see whether the information you’ve received about the conflict is accurate and challenge assumptions made by both parties.  Don’t focus on blame or who is at fault for the conflict – focus on solving it!  Trust your intuition and let it lead the mediation process.   If you’re uncomfortable trying to mediate or the conflict can’t be resolved, consider bringing in a professional.  Whatever you do, don’t just ignore a workplace conflict, hoping it will go away.  It won’t!  Serious unresolved conflicts will poison the atmosphere, so it’s crucial to nip situations in the bud before they get contentious.

To mediate effectively, you need to manage both yourself and the relationship between the parties.  In managing yourself, you need to maintain control of your own emotions.  Remind yourself that no matter how frustrating their behavior, both parties are just trying to meet their own needs.  As St. Francis of Assisi put it, “seek first to understand,” by trying to view the situation from each person’s perspective.  In terms of managing the relationship, be sure the focus is on behavior, not personalities – and direct participants to use “I statements,” such as “I feel frustrated when you…”.  If you notice an employee getting defensive, step back from the content of the conversation and verbalize your feelings about the process.  “I’m frustrated because when your co-worker says something positive, it seems like you hear a negative instead.”  Also, look for subtle signals that the parties may be willing to cooperate and build on areas of commonality or possible agreement.  Focus on the future, not the past – and realize that not all conflicts can be resolved.

If one of your employees is the common denominator in most conflicts, you need to decide if that employee is worth the trouble they’re causing.  Some aren’t.  There are plenty of intelligent and talented people who fail in their jobs because they just can’t get along with others.  According to Daniel Goleman, author of Working with Emotional Intelligence:  “The ultimate act of personal responsibility at work may be in taking control of our state of mind.”  The greatest challenge for an employee may not be the work itself, but rather the ability to treat coworkers respectfully and work together as part of a team.

Remember, behavior that gets rewarded, gets repeated.  So, make sure you’re rewarding behavior you’d like to see more of.  Use praise, promotions, and choice assignments to recognize staff members for being good team players and to send a message to those who aren’t.  According to Richard D. Hart of ProActive ReSolutions, “People’s behavior in a workgroup is both the best predictor of conflict and the best indicator of conflict.”

Cultivating staff collegiality is a good way to ward off­ personality clashes at work.  Provide opportunities for your employees to interact in activities, such as sports teams, celebration lunches, or volunteer work.  Also, when an atmosphere of cooperation exists, rather than employees competing in a zero-sum game, workplace harmony grows stronger.  A cohesive team will work to avoid interpersonal conflicts and can resolve them more easily when they do happen.

Making good hiring decisions is another way to prevent conflicts if effort is taken to find people with high emotional intelligence – self-awareness, self-control, and empathy.  Although people can be trained to acquire new skills, it is difficult to train people to have integrity or to be flexible.  Look for potential employees with good interpersonal skills and those who would be the best fit in your organization’s culture.  A new hire who rejects the company culture is a good bet for eventual problems.

Of course, no workplace can be conflict-free, nor should it be.  Handled well, conflict often has a positive, cleansing effect.  It can serve to challenge ideas, increase self-awareness, and solve problems.  It’s important for employees to be able to agree to disagree, but disagreements can never involve personal attacks.  What separates a great organization from an average one is, in part, how well its people respond to conflict when it does occur.  And, to respond well, most employees need training.


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