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How Would You Solve These Three Employee Conflicts?

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The toll employee conflicts take on human emotions can’t be denied. Neither can their power to derail the best business organization. Conflicted employees tend to communicate less with the coworkers they want to shun. They begin to make poor business decisions because they are not debating the issues they need to, says Craig Runde, director of Mediation Training Institute. Eventually, conflicted employees may begin to stay home from work or quit—or worse.

Do the following workplace scenarios sound familiar? Andy’s installation speed has gone south since Donnie was promoted to crew leader, a position Andy had long been angling for. A sand and finish team refuses to cooperate with Tommy because he barks orders like a dictator. Sue, a flooring sales rep, acts reserved at company meetings because one of her ideas was shot down by a fellow coworker.

Chances are good that similar conflicts have occurred at your business.

Resolving Conflict

When workplace tensions boil over, it’s tempting to let things slide and hope things settle down on their own. But personal conflicts do not magically go away, says Matt Kramer, a professional mediator based in Orlando, Fla. “Instead, they fester and grow.”

Understand 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? Open communication with employees. 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 Donnie to a coveted crew leader slot, you had a feeling Andy might be upset. After all, he’d been bucking for the job for some time, and Donnie hasn’t even worked for you as long.

Unfortunately, your instincts were correct: Andy’s installing less flooring per day and has been acting gloomy and withdrawn.

What should you do? There are three steps, says William Byham, executive chairman of Development Dimensions International.

“First, clarify the reasons for Donnie’s promotion. Share the details of the selection process and all things that went into the decision,” he says. “Second, ask Andy why he is upset and suggest you both talk about it. 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 become a crew leader?” Byham says. Suggest Andy make a list of steps he will take to ready himself.

One final thing: Let Andy know you are on his side and he is not alone. Say something like, “I will always be available to help you when you need it.”

Tommy: Abrasive but Effective

The sand and finish guys say they don’t like working for Tommy. He tends to be overly critical, and he barks orders that discourage feedback or questions. But you like how effective he is.

How can you get Tommy to improve his communication skills without destroying his ability to meet project deadlines? “Have a talk with Tommy,” Runde says. “Start by expressing your appreciation for the way he completes floor projects quickly. Then indicate you want him to also get the job done in a way that involves the employees more and doesn’t cause them to be upset so much.”

Tommy may well say something like this: “You want me to get the job done or do you want me to be nice?” The truth is you want both, Runde notes.

This is another case where an appeal to self-interest can work wonders. 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 problems on the job site, they will start to take more initiative rather than waiting for you to give them orders. You’ll look good because you’re benefiting the company.”

Understand the shift in Tommy’s attitude won’t happen overnight. It will take time, so let Tommy know you don’t expect a complete turnaround in a day.

Sue: Once Burned, Twice Shy

Sue, a recent addition to your flooring sales staff, has not been speaking up at staff meetings. You think you know why. One of her recent proposals had been shot down by Roger, a department head, who used a humiliating tone. Now Sue figures it’s better to keep her ideas to herself.

How can you help Sue recover her confidence? Kramer suggests bringing her in for a meeting and saying something like this: “Sue, you have been very quiet at our recent meetings. Something is going on. Can you share what has been happening with you?” If Sue seems hesitant to speak up, you might reassure her that what she says will remain confidential.

At this point Sue may share her concern about how her proposal was disparaged. Here, Kramer emphasizes the importance of utilizing good listening skills. “Don’t interrupt Sue, don’t correct her, don’t tell her to suck it up,” he says. “When she 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 step in.’”

At this point you can invite Sue to work on ways to overcome the problem in the future. Kramer emphasizes the importance of letting Sue come up with her own solutions rather than dictating a course of action.

Now, how about confronting Roger with his treatment of Sue? While it may be tempting, the initiative can backfire. Confronting him with Sue’s statement may cause him to treat Sue worse, Kramer says.

Instead, Kramer says, 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? Do you feel all of our employees are being heard?”

Manage Conflict

Above all, understand 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,” Kramer says. “And that can be very expensive.”

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