Thursday, August 22, 2013

How to Handle Employee Conflict

One of the hardest parts of management is supervising employees. Even adults can often act like children when they don't get their way or when someone upsets them. Unfortunately, having them stand in the corner for a "time-out" is not a really good option, regardless of how much we might want to give it a try. However, there are things you can to resolve the situation.

Dealing with conflict at an early stage to nip it in the bud and stop the situation developing into a full-blown dispute will save time, money and stress later on, for both management and employees.

Some of the issues that can cause conflict between individuals and groups at work include:

Different values- Since we all hold a set of beliefs or principles we hold as true, when we discuss an issue with someone who has incompatible views, there is high potential for friction and conflict. 

Need for power and control- Conflict often pushes its way into the workplace when one or more people try to make others change their minds, or do other things contrary to their beliefs or choice. Some people feel that they must always come out on top in order to prove their superiority, while others have a difficult time filling the role of follower. 

Employees bullying their way through work- Unfortunately, the bullies we grew up with are now in the workplace and still vying for control.  In a reversal of the typical childhood bullying scenario, adult victims in the workplace tend to be capable and intelligent people.  The bully sees them as a threat, and strives to get them out of the picture. 

Whether you blame it on personality, lifestyle or other factors, there are times when a couple of employees just don’t mesh well together. This type of friction in the ranks can make your office feel like a war zone.

The tension can make the workplace uncomfortable for other employees and have a dramatic effect on productivity. As a manager, you can’t afford to take the see-no-evil-hear-no-evil approach.

So, what can you do?

Acknowledge the conflict- This seems obvious at first, but more often than not, the manager or supervisor may sense the tension in the office, but with so many fires to put out, they usually hope that the dispute simply dies out on its own.  Inaction is likely one of the worst choices.

Focus on behaviors, not personalities- This is a crucial tool that helps everyone understand that they as people are not coming under attack and that the problem at hand is based on one or more particular behaviors.  By understanding this employees can walk out of meetings feeling engaged and empowered instead of attacked and defeated.

Strike an open-door policy balance- Encourage accountability, personal responsibility and growth, but let employees know that an open door does not mean "open dumping ground."  You can also remind them that you are available to coach them on how to work through specific situations.
Here are some steps to take to help you put out the fire between feuding employees.

Encourage employees to work it out - Remember you’re their manager, not their mother. Use your judgment when it comes to addressing employee complaints. You can’t mediate every single dispute. By reacting to every whine you may actually make the situation worse by feeding into the drama.

Nip it in the bud quickly - Unfortunately, some situations won’t work themselves out and you’ll be forced to step in. Like a bad sore, if ignored too long, employee disputes can fester and infect the entire workplace. Workplace disputes that aren’t addressed eventually end up sucking other employees into the drama. This "employee sideshow" can further derail productivity and morale.

Listen to both (all) sides - By the time you get involved, your office may already be buzzing with gossip. Don’t assume you know the entire situation based on what the grapevine says. Sit the feuding employees down and ask each to explain their side of the story.

Some recommend this be done individually, while others believe you should discuss the problem with both at the same time. It might depend on the degree of hostility between them. And this may not be possible at all if the situation calls for an actual investigation. But, you’ll want to create an environment where you can discuss facts, not emotions. Be as objective as possible.

Identify the real issue - Often the cause of an argument between employees can get clouded by the all the emotions and extraneous issues that surround it. Try to get each employee to articulate the real issue in a calm way. Ask them what they would like to see as an outcome (understanding that what they would like may not be possible).

Consult your company policies - Deciphering right from wrong should include reviewing your company’s policies, which are designed to lay down consistent rules that each employee is expected to follow at all times. In order to offer a fair resolution, you’ll need to make sure your decision is aligned with company policy. No employee should be above the policies set forth in the workplace. Letting an employee slide when they’ve clearly violated these policies will weaken your authority and cause resentment in the ranks.

Find a solution - You need to get employees focused on the job at hand. Employees don’t have to be best friends; they don’t even have to be friends at all; they just need to get the job done and do so in a professional and civil manner. Remember you have a department/business to run. If the conflicts continue, you may need to reevaluate your staff. One antagonistic employee can wreak havoc on the rest.

Write it up - Employees may not like it, but it’s important that you document all such workplace incidents. This will help you monitor behavior over time and keep an eye out for repeat offenders that are poisoning your workplace. Always write down details from each run-in an employee has had. Take note of the steps you took to try and resolve the issue.

Walk the Talk - Much of your company culture is based on how everyone interacts with one another. A culture of respectful communication is a "top down" proposition. Business owners, directors, managers and other supervisors set the tone for interaction in the workplace. By speaking to your employees in an honest and respectful manner, you create an environment that values integrity and communication. When you are open and honest, employees are more likely to do the same.

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 practicing and advocating conflict management, 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, discrimination, theft, illegal substance use, etc.

Conflict is not always the evil it is made out to be.  A good fire cannot be made without some friction; it is up to you and your leadership team to funnel this friction into productive and creative work.

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