Workplace Conflict Resolution: 10 ways to manage employee conflict and improve office communication, the workplace environment and team productivity

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Disputes between employees are inevitable. But if left unresolved, they can disrupt your department's productivity, sap morale and even cause some good employees to quit...

That's why Business Management Daily, publisher of The HR Specialist and HR Specialist: Employment Law, has prepared this "workplace survival" special report for managers, employees and HR professionals: Workplace Conflict Resolution: 10 ways to manage employee conflict and improve office communication, the workplace environment and team productivity.

Workplace Conflict Resolution Tips


Negotiating workplace conflict: 3 tips for managers

Conflict happens in all corners of the workplace. Here are three tricks of the trade for resolving workplace conflict, according to Jeffrey Krivis' book Improvisational Negotiation:

  1. Let people tell their story. When people are deeply upset about something, they need to get their story out. This is a basic principle of mediation and one that’s important to remember. Yes, allowing people to speak their minds can increase the level of conflict with which you must deal. That’s OK. You have to get through the conflict phase to find the solution.
  2. Bring a reality check to the table. Often in a conflict, the parties are so focused on minutiae that they lose sight of the big picture and its implications. As the mediator, you need to bring people back to reality by wrenching their attention away from the grain of sand and having them focus on the whole beach. Doing so may help resolution arrive at a startling speed.
  3. Identify the true impediment. In every conflict, ask yourself: What is the true motivating factor here? What is really keeping this person from agreeing to a solution?


Team conflict resolution: Knowing when to referee

Disputes between employees are common and inevitable. The difficult decision is when to step in, says Joseph F. Byrnes, professor of management at Bentley College’s Graduate School in Waltham, Mass. “Give the warring parties a chance to resolve it on their own,” he says. “The time to take action is when things get out of hand, and the problems are affecting their work or disrupting other people’s work.”

Find out if the conflict is work-related and has a structural root, or whether it’s interpersonal and has no relationship to the job, Byrnes advises. An interpersonal conflict can happen on or off the job, whereas structural ones are inevitable in many organizations.

Discover the five techniques Byrnes suggests for dealing with either kind of conflict in Workplace Conflict Resolution.


Don’t be swayed by office politics

As the manager, your approach should be to resolve the situation without offending or alienating either group. “Uppermost is not being seduced by the politics of one group over another,” says clinical psychologist William Knaus.

When politics get in the way, it’s time to step in cautiously. “You don’t want your boss to think that your division is riddled with divisive disputes,” Knaus says. “Your credibility is on the line if you can’t right the situation.”

Easing tensions between warring factions isn’t easy.

“A bad move on the manager’s part could create irreparable barriers, decrease productivity, as well as dampen morale,” Knaus says. “The situation must be carefully managed so that you’re not taking sides.”

Your goal is to keep everyone focused on solving a problem and not be sidetracked by personal or political issues.

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6 steps for managing ‘difficult’ employees

Working alongside difficult people can be hard enough. But managing someone with whom you have a personality clash can cause major tension.

Experienced managers know how to separate emotions from the work at hand when dealing with employees. Rather than dwelling on an employee’s negative personality traits, smart managers focus on tasks, projects and results. They don’t allow their personal feelings to interfere, and they treat everyone the same way.

But in too many cases, managers simply turn away from their least favorite employees. Rather than interacting with them, they avoid them. What’s worse, managers may just write off the problem employees and do the employees’ jobs themselves.

Turning your back on difficult employees isn’t just a management mistake—it can also create legal trouble. That’s because employees who frequently bump heads with management are also the ones most likely to file lawsuits when they feel they’re being treated unfairly.

That’s why, when confronted with employees who don’t do what’s asked, it’s best to devise a strategy for making the best of a potentially explosive situation.

Although it may be hard to transform a difficult employee into a warm, friendly ally, there are several steps you can take to make it easier for the employee to comply.


The 5 common myths about workplace conflict

  1. Conflict is always negative and should be avoided at work. Quite the contrary. When problems are hidden or masked, they aren’t solved. They fester and grow into bigger problems. Conflict has to be acknowledged and addressed.
  2. Difficult people are almost always the cause of conflict. While bad behavior is certainly a contributing cause of conflict, failing to set realistic expectations is a big contributor. If people don’t understand what the organization, their manager or their teammates expect, confusion and conflict can result.
  3. The problem at the root of a conflict is usually obvious. Problem solving is central to managing conflict, but the problem can’t be solved until it’s identified. Getting to the source involves dialogue, conversations and some detective work.
  4. In conflict, there are always winners and losers. A position is a stand we take in a negotiation or conflict. It is what we demand from the other person. Interests are what we really want—our needs, desires and concerns. When positions become the focus of the conflict, the problem can get covered up along with any solution. Focusing on interests, rather than positions is more effective. Think about your interest and then separate your position from your interest.
  5. It’s a manager’s responsibility to fix problems on her team. Unless a problem involves behavior or performance that needs to be addressed, a manager doesn’t necessarily own it—the employees do. When managers intervene and exert authority, employees miss the opportunity to develop their own conflict management skills. Employees need the freedom and authority solve problems that relate to their work.


You may be a bully and not even know it

Four things that make you monster lite, but nonetheless repulsive:

  1. Your sarcasm has a nip to it. You think you’re funny and witty with clever one-liners that distinguish you from your workers. After all, we all need a good laugh now and then. But the recipient of a sarcastic crack thinks you’re treating him or her like an imbecile. Sarcasm has no place in the workplace, especially from a boss who holds sway over others’ livelihoods.
  2. You’re tougher on submissive employees. It’s human nature: You’re less likely to push, prod or pressure someone who has a bit of a backbone. So in order to flex your supervisory muscle, you’re a little more demanding on the meek. It’s easier to bark an order when you know you won’t get any resistance. This act of who to pick on, who to leave alone doesn’t need to be overt to be sensed by employees. They will catch on and see you as a coward—the cornerstone of a bully.
  3. You have all the answers. The matriculation into management doesn’t automatically give you unquestioning knowledge and foresight. In fact, there’s more you need to learn, namely humility. It’s an insecure boss—or a narcissistic one—who won’t admit that he’s stumped, that he doesn’t have all the answers his employees seek. There’s no quicker way to turn off your employees than by shooting down their ideas and suggestions because you know it all. The results are that employees will clam up in front of you, but will open up behind your back, criticizing your pompous ways.
  4. You develop a “you’re an idiot” chuckle. There’s a certain forced laugh some bosses use before spewing their wisdom or points of view. For the boss, it may be just a habit, but the employee hears a dismissive, belittling chuckle that tells him or her that what you say after that should not be challenged.


Read the clues when confronting a worker

Here are some ways employees react when in confrontational situations, and how you can respond.

Silence. This worker is plugged into what you’re saying, so don’t mistake him for a dismissive stoic. There’s a good chance he’s afraid to say anything that might provoke some discipline. Your response: Carefully word your questions and comments to loosen him up. Once you get him to talk, assure him that you’re there to help, not punish.

Tears. You’re dealing with a fragile worker who was likely taken by surprise that she wasn’t up to snuff. Your response: Be sympathetic, but don’t join the pity party. Back off a bit until she composes herself. Tell her it’s not the end of the world (and certainly not her job), and the two of you are meeting to correct things.

Laughter. Don’t assume he thinks the whole thing is a joke. Often, people let out a nervous giggle as a defense mechanism; he’s scared and concerned. Your response: Never laugh with him. Remain serious and speak firmly, but don’t overreact to his chuckles. He will stop once he senses your commitment to helping him recognize and correct his ways.

Anger. “Who? Me? You are so wrong.” She is ready to jump out of her seat to defend herself; to let you know the whole meeting is unwarranted and you’re off the mark. She doesn’t feel she’s responsible for the problem you’ve presented. Your response: Keep your cool, and she’ll tone it down once you firmly explain in detail the problems she’s caused. Focus on facts. With her, you can’t be vague.

Apologies. His eyes are cast down, and he lifts them only to keep saying “I’m sorry.” He appears humble and submissive and is probably hoping that his apologies will get him off the hook. Your response: Be wary of the sincerity. But as long as he’s agreeing to the problem, focus on the solution and get a commitment from him to cooperate.

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Did he just say, 'That's not my job?'

You: Jim, can you file those boxes of folders? Jean’s been out for two days and we need to get those back into place.

Jim: That’s not my job.

You: (speechless).

Before you unload on Jim about your unflinching role as the delegator-in-chief whose decisions, orders and do-as-I-say whims should not be questioned, think of why Jim or any other employee would spew that line in the first place.

Here are three reasons why Jim (or others like him) stood his shaky ground and drew a line in the office carpet:

  1. You didn’t make it abundantly clear when you reviewed his job description with him that his duties can and will include anything that you need him to do for the benefit of the team. Repeat: for the benefit of the team. This should be done early in the interview stage and it should also be part of his annual review. It wouldn’t hurt to drop reminders at staff meetings or during other one-on-one chats.
  2.  You tend to pick on Jim when you’re looking for someone to fill in for an absentee or to pick up the workplace slack, perhaps just because you see him as an efficient, jack-of-all-tasks guy. Jim feels the sting of unfairness when he sees that you never cornered Jean to perform extra tasks. Somehow, she and a few others are exempt.
  3. If you’re not guilty of No. 1 or No. 2, then you don’t need Jim on the payroll. He’s just not a good employee. He’s insubordinate and a toxic component of your team. Such an attitude, if left unchecked, will suck the morale right out of your workplace.


Is it them, or is it me? The problem co-worker quiz

This one’s real simple to score—just circle every question to which you answer “False.” Circle it again … and then again … and then one more time. And then take a moment to think…

  1. I know for a fact that my co-worker behaves in a way I know I never have or ever would.
  2. I know enough about my co-worker’s home and personal life to be sure that nothing can explain the reason for their behavior.
  3. I’m sure my co-worker is the exact same aggravating person outside of the office as inside.
  4. I can’t think of anything to talk about with my co-worker that we would have fun discussing.
  5. The time I spend being irritated and complaining about my co-worker is worth it.
  6. Just letting go of how I feel about my co-worker is not an option.
  7. Other people feel more hostile toward my co-worker than I do—I’m not the #1 complainer.
  8. I am confident that no one I work with has any complaints about me personally.


Deep breath, then discipline right

Some golden rules of thumb for preparing and carrying through with disciplinary actionss, from speaker, author and HR executive Paul Falcone:

  1. Seldom will disciplinary transgressions be identical, so make sure you've created a realistic system that takes into account the many gray areas of human behavior. The same transgression committed by two different people requires different handling depending on many factors. Be careful of blanket policies that sound strong on paper but collapse when they meet the actual range of personalities and problems in the workplace.
  2. For progressive discipline to actually progress, there must be a link or nexus between events in order to move to a next stage. Otherwise, you'll end up with a series of first warnings rather than a progression of first, second and/or final written warnings. Falcone has seen companies develop vast bullet-pointed lists of unrelated infractions and penalties, when what they should be doing is making sure they've set down a short sequence of precise disciplinary steps, each containing some added element to impress upon the employee a growing sense of urgency.
  3. HR should always be present for those tense meetings for two reasons: first, to act as a witness, and second, to ensure the employee is treated with dignity and respect. A coolly logical HR presence is your best insurance that both parties will approach this situation as a mature deal: If they accomplish certain things, you will continue the working relationship. Otherwise, you agree to professionally walk away with no hard feelings. You never want this thought to flit even briefly through someone's mind: "I can't believe they treated me this way."
  4. It must be your goal to shift the responsibility for improvement away from the company and toward its employees. Don't make promises of training, counseling or corrective actions that you can't keep, and don't go too far out on a limb to suggest the company will go to extraordinary lengths to fix a worker's shortcomings.

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