Handling Employee Conflict
By: Johnny Duncan
In this litigious age, many employers are naturally reluctant to interfere with employee conflict. However, since employee quarrels can often entangle and polarize entire groups and lead to low morale, destruction of company culture, and productivity loss --- among other undesired collateral damage --- it is imperative that a leader take control of these types of situations at once.
Mark Twain said, “Always acknowledge a fault frankly. This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you opportunity to commit more.” Too bad more employees have not learned to confess when they are at fault. There is no doubt that most conflicts would resolve themselves if this were the case, but since the opposite is true, we need to educate ourselves and implement best practices to be followed when the time calls for it.
It is literally impossible to convey all the likely reasons why conflict arises in the workplace, but below are a few of the most common. Familiarity with the reasons behind the discord assists us in guiding others towards a resolution.
- Since we all embrace a set of beliefs or principles we hold as true, when we discuss an issue with someone who has incompatible views, there is a high potential for friction and conflict. Being emotional creatures, when faced with these types of situations, we often let our feelings guide our reactions, rather than letting our intellect help us respond in a more cognizant way. Reactions are the words that literally spill out of one’s mouth and are often regretted; responses are the words that evolve after careful consideration and thought processing.
Need for power and control
- Conflict often pushes its way into the workplace when one or more people try to make others change their mind, vote a certain way, or do other things contrary to their beliefs. Some people feel that they must always come out on top in order to prove their superiority, while others have a difficult time fulfilling the role of follower. This power struggle is sometimes noticeable but quite often it works its way into the meeting room like an invisible rip current. It eventually becomes a swift killer of morale and productivity as minds and souls quickly drown and revert to their “I-just-work-here” mode.
Employees bullying their way through work
- Unfortunately, the bullies we grew up with are now in the workplace and still vying for control. Dr Gary Namie, co-founder and president of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, conducted an online survey of 1,000 people who claimed to have been bullied at work. He found that, of these victims, 37% were fired, and 33% quit their jobs. In a reversal of the typical childhood bullying scenario, in which unpopular kids are picked on most, adult victims in the workplace tend to be capable and charismatic people. The bully sees them as a threat, and strives to get them out of the picture. Most workplace bullies are thought to be women-58% according to those Namie surveyed, and so are their targets-80% of those surveyed. It is estimated that half the adult population will experience severe conflict at least once in their working life. However, many managers and leaders don’t expect conflict and are not prepared to deal with it when it intrudes.
There are five basic steps an employer can take to resolve dissonance in the workplace within safe legal territory.
Acknowledge the conflict
- This seems obvious at first glance, but more often than not, the employer or HR manager may sense the tension in the office or shop, but with so many fires to put out, they usually hope that the dispute simply fizzles out. Inaction is likely one of the worse and costlier choices.
Meet, Share and Agree
- Meet with the parties involved and have them list situations in which they must work together. Ask both parties to carefully listen to what the other says and repeat it in their own words to make sure both sides are communicating and understanding each other. This can take time, but it defines the issue and builds the foundation for resolving it. Legendary communicator, Dale Carnegie, said “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” That is the foundation of step number two. Get agreements on the type of behaviors employees will exhibit in order to get their tasks accomplished. Behind closed doors, let both parties agree in the process and also emphatically let them know what’s at stake: no one wants to be perceived as a trouble maker or as difficult to handle. To some extent, expectation defines the result. If you indicate, by your actions, content, or voice tone, that you expect less than full adult behavior, that’s what you are likely to get. Remind them that words, even idle chitchat, have meaning and consequences.
Create an issue resolution process
- This fundamental tool for reducing wasted time spent on what is often frivolous quarreling should be incorporated into your employee handbook. Several templates to accomplish this task are available through SHRM and other online resources. Giving appropriate praise to employees willing to navigate this process within a positive frame of mind will divert the attention they get as either the victim or perpetrator. At Delta Faucet, in Jackson, Tenn., it is understood that team leaders should not be involved in refereeing disagreements on the team because it takes time away from important tasks. Instead, employees are trained in conflict management and required to follow a specific course of action when conflicts arise. Perhaps not all companies have the time to invest in this kind of training, but having a process in place is an acceptable runner up to achieve the desired result.
Focus on behaviors, not personalities
- This is a crucial tool that helps others understand that their entire person is not coming under scrutiny and that the challenge at hand is solely based on one or more particular behaviors instead. By understanding this concept employees walk out of meetings feeling engaged instead of defeated.
Strike an open-door policy balance
- Encourage accountability and growth and let employees know that open door does not mean “open dumping ground.” But also remind them that you are available to coach them on how to work through specific situations. This will give them a sense that they truly are your most valuable asset and will ignite a desire to self-arbitrate future challenges.
It’s been said that conflict is inevitable and resentment is optional. Protecting your business begins with creating a culture that understands this and values conflict management. In addition to including conflict-resolution action steps in your employee handbook, be sure to clearly communicate that management or HR must always be notified of and involved in certain types of conflicts. Particularly those in which there are indications of physical violence, harassment, theft, or illegal substance use.
Conflict is not always the evil it is made to be. In fact, when teams learn to capitalize from this friction is when groups take positive action, reexamine decisions, and ground-breaking ideas are born. A good fire is impossible without friction; it is up to you and your leadership teams to funnel this friction into a catalyst for innovation and productivity.
Johnny Duncan, PHR, is President of Duncan Consulting, Inc., a human resource capital firm that partners with business owners to provide workforce management solutions. Specialties include personalized training, job analysis, people-to-job matches, and conflict resolution. He can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 407-739-0718.