Do the following workplace scenarios sound familiar?
- Andy’s work performance has gone south since Margaret was promoted to a position he had long been angling for.
- Employees refuse to cooperate with Carla because she barks orders in a “bossy” way.
- Alex hangs back at staff meetings because one of his pet ideas was shot down.
Chances are good that conflicts similar to those have occurred in your own workplace. Their toll on human emotions can’t be denied—and neither can their power to derail the best business organization. “Unaddressed workplace conflicts can be costly because they lead to bad things happening,” says William C. Byham, Executive Chairman of Development Dimensions International (DDI), Pittsburgh (ddiworld.com).
Such as? For starters, troubled employees tend to think about their problems to the exclusion of everything else—including work matters. “Conflicted workers will often start wasting time in their offices turning over what is bothering them, and still more time bringing up the topic with others,” says Craig E. Runde, director of Mediation Training Institute (mediationworks.com), St Petersburg, FL.
Too, conflicted people tend to communicate less with the coworkers they want to shun. “When people avoid conversation they end up not debating the business issues they need to,” says Runde. “The result is that they make poor quality decisions.” Eventually, conflicted employees may begin to stay home from work or even quit. In the worst case scenarios, personal conflicts can spark lawsuits or even workplace violence. All the above can cause productivity and profits to go south.
When workplace tensions boil over, it’s tempting to let things slide and hope things settle down on their own. But while intervening in personal issues may seem intrusive, a “hands off” approach can backfire. “When you don’t deal with personal conflicts they do not magically go away,” says Matt Kramer, a professional mediator based in Orlando, Florida (mattkramer.com). “Instead, they fester and grow.”
Get off the dime by understanding that workplace conflicts are business matters, and that their resolution is part of good management practice. You need to encourage the involved individuals to resolve their personal issues. How to? “Open the doors to communication with your employees,” says Adeel Zaidi, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of Bullseye Engagement, Houston (bullseyeengagement.com). “That’s the number one step to resolving workplace conflicts.”
Easier said than done, of course. For guidance on how to deal productively with workplace wars, consider the following responses to our opening scenarios.
Andy: Passed-over for promotion
When you promoted Margaret to a coveted sales slot you had a feeling Andy might be upset. After all, he’d been bucking for the job for some time.
Unfortunately, your instincts were correct: Andy’s job performance has been suffering and he has been acting gloomy and withdrawn. Just this morning you overheard him tell a colleague that Margaret had received the promotion "just because she's a woman."
What should you do? “There are three steps you should take with Andy,” says Byham. “First, clarify the reasons for Margaret’s promotion. Share the details of the selection process and all things that went into the decision.”
It’s important to clarify that the promotion was not gender based and that you don’t want this false rumor to spread, adds Byham.
“Second, ask Andy why he is upset and suggest you both talk about it,” says Byham. “This will give him an opportunity to vent.”
The final step is to get Andy refocused on the future by appealing to his self-interest. “What does Andy need to do to get to his next promotion?” poses Byham. Suggest that Andy make a list of steps he will take to ready himself for the next position.
One final thing: Let Andy know you are on his team and he is not alone: Say something like this: “I will always be available to help you when you need it.”
There is a related question to address here as well: Is it possible to avoid this kind of unpleasant, productivity-sapping surprise for employees looking for promotions? Zaidi suggests there is.
“Managers can avoid these situations through managing expectations and by having frequent check-ins with direct reports to employees,” says Zaidi. This ongoing communication will keep employees like Andy from misunderstanding management intentions.
Also, prior to announcing Margaret’s promotion it would have been good to sit down with Andy and inform him of the decision you were about to make, and the reasons for it. “Your direct reports should always hear your decisions from you instead of spiced up versions from third parties,” says Zaidi.
Carla: Abrasive but effective
Employees say they don't like working for Carla. She tends to be overly critical, and she barks orders in short, clipped commands that discourage feedback. But because Carla gets things done fast, you like to her to manage projects.
How can you get Carla to improve her communication skills without destroying her ability to meet deadlines? “Have a talk with Carla,” says Runde. “Start by expressing your appreciation for the way she brings projects quickly to fruition. Then indicate you want her to also get the job done in a way that involves the employees more and doesn’t cause them to be upset so much.”
Carla may well say something like this: “You want me to get the job done or do you want me to be sweet and nice?” The truth is you want both, notes Runde. “You want Carla to get things done quickly, and at the same time not alienate colleagues.”
This is another case where an appeal to self-interest can work wonders. “Ordering Carla to change how she communicates with her colleagues will not be accepted in a helpful way,” says Runde. “Instead, show Carla what’s in it for her.”
Explain that encouraging employees to be resourceful is part of the supervisory role, using words like these: “If you get the employees more involved in thinking about solutions to workplace problems, and in developing their own techniques for getting things done, they will start to take more initiative rather than waiting for you to give them orders. That will benefit the company and you will look good because you are causing a beneficial transformation.”
Of course, Carla will not be able to transform her work style overnight. “It may be that Carla does not know how to get started,” says Runde. “You may need to mentor her. Ask her to start thinking about new ways to get her colleagues more involved in the work process. In lieu of issuing abrupt orders, she might ask employees to come up with their own procedures for reaching specific work goals.” In the beginning this approach might take a little more time, so let Carla know that will be acceptable to you.
“Check in with Carla from time to time to see how she is doing,” says Runde. “It’s likely that she will have experienced some successes and encountered some difficulties. Discuss these with her. Ask ‘What accounted for your successes? What challenges got in the way the other times?’ This dialog will help Carla perform at a higher level.”
Alex: Once burned, twice shy
Alex, a recent addition to your workforce, has not been speaking up at staff meetings. You think you know why. One of his recent proposals had been shot down by Roger, a department head, who employed a disparaging and humiliating tone of voice. Now Alex figures it’s better to keep his ideas to himself.
How can you help Alex recover his confidence? Kramer suggests bringing him in for a meeting and saying something like this: “Alex, you have been very quiet at our recent meetings. Something is going on. Can you share what has been happening with you?” If Alex seems hesitant to speak up, you might reassure him that what he says will remain confidential, with words such as these: “This meeting is confidential. Nothing you say will go outside these doors. I want to do my best to help handle whatever is going on with you.”
At this point Alex may share his concern about how his proposal was disparaged. Here, Kramer emphasizes the importance of utilizing good listening skills. “Don’t interrupt Alex, don’t correct him, don’t tell him to suck it up,” he says. “When he is finished say something like this: ‘Thank you for sharing this with me. I am very sorry that I was not aware of your reaction when this happened. If something similar happens again I will defend you.’”
At this point you can invite Alex to work on ways to overcome the problem in the future. Kramer emphasizes the importance of letting Alex come up with his own solutions rather than dictating a course of action. Alex may well decide that at the next staff meeting he will come prepared with suitable rejoinders to defend his ideas.
Now, how about confronting Roger with his treatment of Alex? While it may be tempting, Kramer cautions that the initiative can backfire. “Roger’s performance in the meeting indicated that he had little regard for Alex,” says Kramer. “It was more important that he grandstand himself at the expense of a fellow employee.” Confronting him with Alex’s statement may cause him to treat Alex worse.
Instead, says Kramer, try to persuade Roger to mend his ways by counseling him with words that couch the issue in terms of a larger good. In a private meeting, ask Roger “How would you go about improving the morale of the staff and its performance?” See if you can direct the conversation in a way that Roger becomes aware not specifically about how he has treated Alex but about how he can become more supportive of his fellow employees in general. This will translate into a more productive relationship between Roger and the other employees. And that can only be good for Roger’s own career advancement.
Three keys to success
The above scenarios illustrate three critical principles for resolving workplace conflicts. First, open the channels of communication. Second, encourage employees to develop their own solutions. Finally, explain that working productively with other employees is in the self-interest of everyone involved.
Above all, understand that workplace conflict is a management issue. Take seriously your own responsibility to help embattled workers resolve their differences. The result will be a fatter bottom line. “The amount of energy employees spend avoiding and reacting to conflict affects workplace productivity,” says Kramer. “And that can be very expensive.”