The Green Sheet Online Edition
December 28, 2009 • Issue 09:12:02
Managing conflict in the workplace
Every business faces conflict in the workplace. Organizations large and small deal with disagreements daily. Unresolved conflict places a huge financial burden on companies by increasing stress, absenteeism and employee turnover. Any stressor that results in decreased productivity is simply unacceptable, and failure to address conflict is not an option if you want to operate a successful business.
A business owner is responsible for creating a positive work environment where employees thrive while assisting the company in reaching its goals. While it is acceptable to have differences of opinion over ideas and issues, it is never OK to allow personality issues or other conflicts to affect the workplace.
What does conflict in the workplace actually mean? Conflict arises when employees feel threatened and their specific, individual needs are not being met. It can arise from seemingly insignificant issues, such as someone parking in the wrong slot, to major issues, such as a worker who errs blaming a colleague for the mistake or someone taking credit for the work of others.
Violations of company policies, or even state or federal laws, are also likely sources of contention.
Just as conflict has a variety of levels, from insignificant to catastrophic, there are also different ways to respond to it. The Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) is a self-assessment test that helps identify an individual's reactions and responses to conflict and helps select the proper response to conflict.
According to the TKI, there are five levels of response: avoidance, accommodation, compromise, competition and collaboration. Many times a business owner, manager or supervisor will choose a combination of responses to deal with a conflict.
Avoidance is pretending the situation doesn't exist and will go away on its own. When this response is employed, there is no resolution. Without resolution, work is not completed, company goals cannot be met and the situation can only worsen. On occasion, you can use avoidance to table an issue, giving you time to gather additional information before determining how to resolve the conflict.
Accommodation also does not ultimately resolve the situation. When this response is used, one person's needs are met while another's are not. This method allows the facilitator to accommodate the needs of one party while ignoring the needs of the other party. It is a technique that can also be used as a temporary resolution to the conflict.
Compromise meets some needs of both parties. Finding the middle ground allows each party to have partial resolution. This response can be extremely successful if both parties to the conflict participate in reaching the compromise.
Competition is a method that will work in certain situations. In a competition scenario, both parties participate in resolving the conflict. However, one party is viewed as the "winner" while the other party is perceived as the "loser."
Collaboration is a way to allow all parties to participate in resolving the strife. While both difficult and time consuming, this strategy often provides the best results because it satisfies the needs of both parties as they come together to reach a consensus on resolving the issue. While this method can be extremely rewarding and successful, it is not the appropriate choice for every type of conflict.
Now that we have defined conflict in the workplace and identified several possible responses to dealing with it, here are specific steps you can take to mediate or resolve the conflict.
1. Acknowledge the conflict immediately. The longer you delay in admitting that discord exists, the more difficult the resolution becomes.
Conflict will not resolve itself. It may appear that the immediate situation has been resolved, but the underlying issues can continue to exist and may explode at the least likely time.
2. Depending on the particular situation, determine if you prefer to meet with the parties involved individually or together. If you meet with each one separately, focus on the issue, not the personalities involved. Ask for a specific, detailed description of the action that created the conflict as well as the precise action being requested.
3. If you meet with the parties together, ask each party to provide his or her view of the situation, as well as the actions desired. Do not allow this meeting to deteriorate into a shouting match or other confrontation, and ask both parties to keep their disagreement confidential and not allow it to spread to other employees.
4. Understand that everyone in the office is affected by discord. The stress level can be explosive, and other employees may feel they must walk on eggshells to avoid a destructive blowup.
A hostile work environment is not conducive to efficiency and productivity and has long-term detrimental effects on the entire company. Such a toxic work environment may cause star performers to leave, seeking a more positive and productive work atmosphere.
5. Let each party know you will not take sides. Emphasize that your decision is objectively based and in the best interests of the company. Also, let them know you expect them to act like adults and conduct themselves in a professional, businesslike manner while you search for the best resolution possible.
Advise them if they are unwilling to conduct themselves in this manner, that further disciplinary action may take place up to and including termination of both parties.
6. Using your problem-solving skills, decide if you have sufficient information to resolve the issue. If you do, make your decision known, and gain the agreement and commitment of both parties to accept it.
Get each party to acknowledge when changes happen and to treat each other with dignity and respect. Assure each party that you have confidence in their ability to work together, resolve differences and work for the common good of the company.
If you do not have adequate information to make a decision, conduct a thorough investigation into the causes and repercussions of the conflict. Ask questions; challenge assumptions; look at things through clear, unfiltered lenses.
If you need to collect further information, let both parties know what you are doing and provide a timetable projecting when you will meet with them again and come to a decision.
7. At the resolution of the current situation, ask yourself if you played a role in creating an environment where conflict can grow. Remember, your task is to make absolutely, positively sure that all employees succeed and that the business goals are met.
It is vitally important that you conduct a self assessment to be sure you are doing everything possible to avoid conflict and create a vital, dynamic setting for all employees and business partners.
Deal with it
Dealing with conflict is always challenging; however, it is the responsibility of business owners, managers and supervisors. To reach a positive resolution, you will need to use your problem solving, information gathering, mediation, communication and evaluation skills. Using the steps provided herein will help you to foster the success of both your business and your employees.
Vicki M. Daughdrill is the Managing Member of Small Business Resources LLC, a management consulting company. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 601-310-3594.
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