Managers' do's and don'ts for handling workplace conflict

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Everything was fine before your small company landed the big new contract. Everyone is working harder. Now your employees' tempers are flaring and fingers are pointing. People who once seemed to get along well are barely speaking to each other. In the last few weeks, your office has become a revolving door of complaints and conflicts... 

You've been hearing complaints about one of your employees. He's extremely competitive and not much of a team player. You've heard rumors about how he undermines others on the team to make himself look good. Now that there's a rumor about downsizing, you've started to see evidence of it yourself... 

Situations like these can occur in any workplace. And conflict is inevitable when people with different personalities and goals work together. But I've noticed a significant increase in the number of requests I'm getting to help with these kinds of issues. There seems to be three core causes: the pace of change in the marketplace has accelerated, customer expectations have been raised across the board and there's pressure to do more with less, and teamwork is thrusting employees into new co-dependent working relationships. 

Conflict is never an easy thing to deal with, and less so in this environment. So it's no surprise that most people either try to ignore it and hope it goes away, or attempt a direct confrontation, which often makes it worse. 

Here are a few do's and don'ts for managers: 

DON'T: When you know about a conflict, don't look the other way. 

DO: A conflict is a red flag. It tells you to stay alert and pay attention to what is really going on. If you have first-hand information you'll be in a better position to coach the people involved. Using third-party information is risky and can make a bad situation worse ("So and so said that you were..."). 

DON'T get into the role of "parent." It's tempting to step into a conflict between two parties who are complaining about each other. Too often managers think that they should quickly respond to a complaint about a fellow employee by rushing off to correct the wayward employee's behavior. Of course the confronted employee feels betrayed and becomes defensive because another employee has "tattled" on him or her instead of trying to work it out first. 

DO: It's important to encourage employees to take responsibility for working out their own conflicts. But often, you'll need to help them figure out how. 1.) Listen carefully to the person's complaint. 2.) Ask them what they have done so far to remedy the situation. 3.) Redirect the complainer back to the person and coach him or her on what to say and how to say it. 4.)  Ask the person to report back to you on how it went, so you can offer more supportive coaching, if needed. 

DON'T assume it's a personality conflict. 

DO: Look for the core causes. One way to get at the real issue is to ask the person to explain the problem and then ask, "How does this affect your work?" Another way to peel away the layers of emotion is to ask "Why" five times. By the fifth question, you're usually at the heart of the matter. 

DON'T try to solve an interpersonal conflict between a few people in front of the whole group. If you attempt to force a group to confront someone or hope to use group pressure to get someone to change, you are playing with fire. It is likely to blow up and become worse and the insult will be added to the original injury. 

DO: Deal with the individuals privately and coach each of them to work with each other before stepping in. And don’t talk about the conflict with other employees. 

DON'T think that telling a group of complaining employees to "stop" or "get along" is going to actually make the problem go away. They may stop telling you, but you can be sure that it will go underground and probably blow up later. 

DO: Confront a chronic complainer who is constantly stirring up rumors, gossip and generally badmouthing others. Managers tend to shy away from dealing with this type of problem employee because they do so much damage when they're cornered. They're also fearful that their behavior may not be directly performance related and therefore off limits to be discussed legally. On the contrary, if their behavior is ruining team morale, affecting the level of cooperation or doing anything that is affecting the customer, you have good reason to deal with it.  


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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