Management Tools

By Kelly Mollica Apr 1, 2005
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HR Magazine, April 2005 Protect your time and your sanity by coaching employees to deal with interpersonal conflicts on their own.

Your employees routinely come to you with complaints about each other, involving everything from co-workers with negative attitudes and poor cubicle manners to team members who aren’t pulling their share of the workload. And you get involved because it is the manager’s job to resolve conflicts among employees, right?

Not necessarily. Sometimes the best thing you can do is “push back” by asking complaining employees to quit bellyaching and address interpersonal conflicts on their own before they try to unload them on you.

This hands-off approach benefits you by allowing you to focus on your work and by developing your employees’ ability to handle workplace conflicts—a valuable skill for all employees, not just managers.

Three Managerial Mistakes

Does this scenario sound familiar? One of your employees, Beth, comes to you and says, “I can’t stand working with Jake. He constantly interrupts me, talks too much and asks nosy questions. Plus, he plays loud music on the radio in his cubicle, and it distracts me all day long. Please do something about it!” Should you meet with Jake and ask him to stop interrupting Beth, talk less, ask fewer questions and turn his radio down? Or should you listen to Beth’s complaints but use this opportunity to encourage her to deal with Jake directly and send her on her way?

If you do as Beth asks and tackle the problem yourself, you’ve made three key mistakes.

First, you have acted on the incorrect assumption that problem-solving inherently involves a top-down approach and that the manager’s role is to exert power by intervening every time employees clash. Get rid of this dysfunctional belief. Yes, you are the manager. Yes, you are in charge. And because you are in charge, you are acting within the scope of your authority by refusing to let employees unload their conflicts on you. If you choose to confront Jake in response to Beth’s complaints, you’ll be seen as “taking sides,” and Jake will resent the apparent favoritism toward Beth. Take sides often enough, and you’ll be perceived as biased in favor of certain employees, which is certain to undermine your authority.

Second, by personally handling all of your employees’ problems, you’re hurting your own job performance. Dealing with petty conflicts among employees takes up time that you need to be productive on other tasks. “But,” you protest, “taking care of employees’ conflicts is a productive use of my time. If I can solve their problems, they’ll be able to concentrate on working harder.” In some cases, this could be true. However, if every employee dispute—major or minor—ends up on your desk, your productivity is inhibited. Eventually, you’ll become burned out and ineffective.

Third, and perhaps most important, by stepping in and exerting authority, you’re missing valuable opportunities to coach employees in developing their conflict-management skills. Solving your employees’ problems for them hurts their performance by reducing collaboration and making them dependent on you. Your goal should be to engage them in their own problem-solving.

Employees who become overly dependent on their managers are a corporate liability. Organizations need people who can handle day-to-day issues on their own and who can think independently, analyze problems, come up with solutions and take any necessary steps. This includes both task-related and people-related problems. Employees who can resolve most of their own conflicts in the workplace are most likely productive and efficient and can be a tremendous asset to a company’s bottom line.

Coaching employees to solve their own problems will initially take more time and energy than handling the conflict yourself. In the long term, however, you’ll create a work environment where conflict management is seen as everyone’s obligation, not just something that managers have to worry about.

Survival Strategies

How do you move toward a workplace where employees take responsibility for resolving conflicts and managers intervene only when absolutely necessary? Here are eight tips to get you started.

Don’t put your employees’ “urgent” issues at the top of your priority list. Before you can change employees’ mind-sets about dealing with conflict, you must change your own mind-set. Author and leadership guru Stephen Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press, 1990), points out that many people—including managers—spend too much time dealing with issues that are urgent but not important. Covey defines as “urgent” something needing immediate attention; “importance” is the extent to which an issue has to do with results—for example, contributing to a company’s mission or goals. So, following these definitions, a lack of toilet paper in the employees’ rest room is urgent but not important.

Say to yourself, “While I will listen to and support an employee when there is a conflict, I will not automatically take ownership of the employee’s problem.” If you have developed a pattern of allowing yourself to get drawn into employee problems, this strategy might take some work. It might also meet with resistance from employees who are accustomed to dropping their “urgent” problems in your lap.

Train employees in conflict resolution. Many companies conduct fire safety training on a regular basis, but how often do workplace fires occur? Yet, employees often get no training in dealing with conflict—an almost daily occurrence.

Employees should be trained in conflict resolution, and the training should be ongoing. A one-shot training program isn’t enough to build competence in conflict resolution. Training in conflict resolution often starts with self-assessments so employees can first understand their own conflict-management styles and the pros and cons of using a particular style.

Communicate clear expectations. Make it clear to employees that they are expected to attempt to resolve conflicts before approaching a manager for help. At Delta Faucet in Jackson, Tenn., each employee is trained in conflict management and is required to follow a specific course of action when conflicts arise among team members. Jeff Thomas, director of human resource management, says it is understood at Delta Faucet that team leaders should not be involved in refereeing petty disagreements on the team; it takes time away from their more important tasks, such as conducting long-range planning, evaluating training, executing business plans and ensuring exceptional customer service.

Set specific guidelines. Without guidance, employees are likely either to avoid confronting issues or to deal with problems too aggressively. Set clear guidelines regarding what employees should do if they experience conflict.

Teams at Delta Faucet have specific protocols for addressing conflict. For example, if an employee’s behavior is creating a problem within a team, the team is expected to work it out without involving the team leader. Two team members will meet with the “problem” team member and work toward a resolution. If this is unsuccessful, the whole team meets and confronts the issue. If necessary, the team leader can be brought in to make a decision, but, Thomas points out, it is a rare occurrence for a team to reach that stage.

Create a culture in which conflict management is valued. Managing conflict should be viewed as a core job competency, regardless of whether the employee is a maintenance worker or a highly skilled professional.

During job interviews, behavioral questions can help assess prior experience in dealing with conflict. For example, ask a job candidate to “describe a time you had a conflict with a co-worker. What happened to bring about the conflict, and what did you do to resolve it?”

Observable and measurable criteria, based on guidelines or protocols for resolving conflict, can be incorporated into job descriptions and performance reviews as well. One example of performance criteria is a statement that employees should “confront interpersonal conflict in a constructive and timely manner using the company’s three-step approach and involve the supervisor only when necessary.” Employees who successfully resolve conflicts on their own should be recognized and praised.

Continually remind employees to focus on behaviors, not personalities. Many employees will be hesitant to confront their co-workers, especially those with whom they interact frequently. Understandably, they may be concerned about hurting a co-worker’s feelings, creating animosity or damaging relationships. Remind employees to focus on the other person’s behavior and the consequences of that behavior and not on personalities or subjective judgments.

If we go back to the opening scenario involving Beth and Jake, it would be much more effective for Beth to say, “Jake, you interrupt me at least a dozen times every day, and you ask a lot of questions. I enjoy a little socializing, but your behavior is making it difficult for me to get my work done,” rather than “Jake, you are insensitive, nosy and too talkative. Why don’t you just leave me alone?” The former approach avoids directly attacking Jake and focuses instead on certain of Jake’s behaviors. The latter approach is sure to put Jake on the defensive and result in an antagonistic work climate.

Have an open-door policy—and stick to it. Now that you’re insisting employees take ownership of their problems, no one ever comes to you anymore to complain or grumble about their co-workers. That’s good, right? Sorry, but no. The absence of complaints does not necessarily signify the absence of conflict. The situation might be worse than ever, but you might be totally unaware of it because employees think they’re not supposed to discuss conflicts with you anymore.

You should let employees know that you’re still available to coach them on how to work through specific situations. One way to do this is to schedule follow-up meetings regarding specific situations. For example, tell Beth, “I expect you to talk to Jake and try to work out this problem, but I’d like to meet with you next week to see how things went.” Employees also need to know that if they try and fail to resolve a conflict, you are available for follow-up guidance.

Be firm, however, in letting employees know that an “open door” does not mean the same thing as an “open dumping ground.” Don’t let employees fall back into trying to dump problems on you that they should resolve on their own.

Know where to draw the line. Bear in mind that expecting employees to handle every problem on their own, regardless of how serious the problem may be, could send the message that management is willing to turn a blind eye to inappropriate or potentially illegal behaviors. Clearly communicate that management must always be notified and involved in certain types of conflicts. At Delta Faucet, employees are expected immediately to notify human resources when there are indications of physical violence, harassment, theft, or illegal substance use or possession. Nonmanagerial employees should never be expected to confront violations of the law or to enforce company policy without management’s knowledge.

Remain Realistic

Of course, none of the above suggestions will lead to a workplace totally devoid of conflict. The goal isn’t to eliminate conflict—that’s both impossible and undesirable. Conflict will be a natural occurrence in any work environment in which employees who have varying priorities, ideas and behaviors must work together toward a common goal. Instead, by gently “pushing back,” you are enabling your employees to learn valuable workplace skills while you reclaim and protect your own time.

Kelly Mollica, Ph.D., SPHR, is a leadership development specialist with The Centre Group, a human asset management firm in Memphis, Tenn. She is also an associate professor of business at Bethel College. She can be reached at kmollica@thecentregroup.com or (731) 588-2862.

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