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Management Tools: Interpersonal Communications & Conflict-management

HR Magazine, May 2005Develop interpersonal communications and conflict-management skills to better manage employee relations.

When was the last time you took a good look at your workforce? What did you see? You probably saw a rapidly changing group of employees that is getting more diverse by the day. The accelerated growth of diversity in the workforce over the past 20 years has spawned new developments in managing employee relations, making it one of the biggest challenges facing managers.

To meet this challenge, managers must improve skills such as active listening, adaptability and decision-making. These core skills can assist supervisors and managers in tackling difficult issues that may arise within their workforce.

However, while the skills mentioned above are key, this article focuses on the two most important skills for managing employee relations: interpersonal communications and conflict management.

Interpersonal Communications

The first skill for managers to understand and practice is interpersonal communications, because it is the foundation for all actions in the workplace and it allows the supervisor or manager an opportunity to build relationships with the overall workgroup without alienating anyone in the work environment. Working with diverse groups of people requires a tremendous amount of interaction. If these interactions are positive, they can help create the right workplace climate, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.

In addition, because interactions occur daily, it is important for managers to have the respect of their employees. If this respect is absent, the supervisor or manager will have a difficult time getting things accomplished.

In a June 2004 Harvard Business Review article titled “Understanding ‘People’ People,” Timothy Butler and James Waldroop identify four dimensions to optimize interpersonal communications:

  • Influence. This dimension is for those who thrive on constant interaction with people. The interaction allows individuals the opportunity to develop and extend their personal sphere of interpersonal influence. This provides professional satisfaction with the ability to influence, negotiate and leverage valuable information as a method to enhance ideas. Think of these individuals as having highly developed salesmanship skills because they have the ability to constantly keep people highly motivated, no matter what the situation.
  • Interpersonal facilitation. This dimension describes those who are perceived and known as “people persons.” They are very aware of the interpersonal aspects of the work environment and are intuitive, because they are constantly monitoring the situation behind the scenes. Those who focus on this dimension pose critical questions to themselves, such as: What is going to be our strategy to ensure positive employee relations? Moreover, what employee relations issues are going to impact the business and what is the proper way to address them? “People persons” use these questions and subsequent answers to look for ways to improve organizational effectiveness through proactive solutions.
  • Relational creativity. This dimension focuses on nurturing and developing relationships with diverse groups through visual and verbal imagery. An example of this would be the leader of a marketing team who develops and implements a marketing strategy designated for a particular consumer segment, or the plant manager who prepares a speech that the CEO of the organization will deliver to employees, as a method to excite employees about the organization’s new direction.
  • Team leadership. This dimension is for those who are committed to maintaining and fostering good employee relations with the workforce. They enjoy the day-to-day interaction as a method of feeling good about themselves. Those who embrace this dimension don’t care for individual tasks such as writing reports, working on a computer, or any other activity that doesn’t allow them to engage others as a means to feel satisfied and fulfilled.

With respect to the four relational dimensions, it is important to note that a manager can have a profound interest in one, two, three or all four dimensions. It is also important to understand that managers need to keep these dimensions in mind when engaging diverse groups, developing people and creating employee relations strategies.

Conflict Management

The second skill for managers to leverage is conflict management. Learning to leverage this skill can help in resolving employee relations issues quickly and effectively, and can create greater satisfaction with the workgroup. There are seven components to effective conflict management:

  • Speak your mind and heart. As a manager, you need to speak up and say what you think. As obvious as this point seems, people have a difficult time articulating their needs, wants and desires. This exacerbates the conflict because the communication gets distorted and people become frustrated. An example of this would be an employee who is very upset with their manager’s management style. He goes to the manager to discuss how he feels, but, instead of focusing on the issue, the manager brings up other issues, which distorts the communication and frustrates the employee. Remember, instead of avoiding the problem, address it and speak up.
  • Listen well. Listening skills are the foundation to managing conflict. Your focus should be on what the person says, not your response to what is said. Focus on what is positive in the conversation instead of negative, and inform the other party of what you are doing.
  • Express strong feelings appropriately. Conflict of any type creates a surge in emotions such as happiness, anger, despair and sorrow. Your job as the manager is to manage those emotions through respect and careful examination of what the person is experiencing. Never attack the individual talking. Say, “Dave, I understand your conviction on this matter, and I am willing to work through it so that we can bring closure to the issue,” instead of, “Dave, I am tired of your complaining and the poor attitude exhibited by you and your co-workers. To me, this is a done issue.” Remember, you are trying to establish a relationship with your workforce.
  • Remain rational for as long as you can. This means keeping yourself focused on resolving the conflict and remaining connected to the individual throughout the conversation. Then, summarize the situation and ask questions. For example, say, “John, I heard you say that you and Susan are having issues communicating. Allow me to meet with Susan so that I can assist in addressing your concerns.”
  • Review what has been said. Ensure that all issues regarding the conflict are clarified, and if they are not, ask questions to get answers to the things you don’t know. For example, say, “To get at the crux of the issue, I need answers to my questions. Why did Ken hurl a racial insult at Mohammed?”
  • Learn to give and take. The conversation must be two-sided, not with you doing all of the talking. This will help provide a short- or long-term solution to the conflict. An example of this would be saying, “Linda, you made a good point, now please hear me out,” instead of, “Linda, you need to listen to me. I don’t need your input. I will solve this problem.” Get employees involved so they buy into the process.
  • Avoid all harmful statements. When you verbally attack, you create enemies and put individuals on the defensive. This means that you are reducing the chances of quickly resolving any conflict. Just remember the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm.”

As stated in the seven points above, conflict management requires a great deal of listening, clearly articulating the issues, asking questions and providing solutions. Using these techniques to improve your conflict- management skills will go a long way in fostering positive employee relations with a workforce.

“Employee relations in the workplace will continuously test the mental fortitude and physical endurance of managers in all industries,” says Billy D. Ihrig, group director of labor and employee relations at Ryder Inc. in Miami. “Understanding the importance to getting at the root causes of employee relation issues will be the impetus for improved employee relations, increased credibility with the workforce and the establishment of a positive workplace for years to come.”

The Payoff

This article has described two anchor skills—interpersonal communications and conflict management—that managers can use to improve employee relations in the workplace. Incorporating interpersonal communications and conflict management into your employee relations strategy could result in interactions that are more positive and less combative.

Remember, no organization wants to be known as one that doesn’t foster strong employee relations. To survive in a highly competitive business environment, organizations want to attract and retain the best talent from all walks of life and be known as the employer of choice.

Greg Roper, Ph.D., is a registered organizational development professional and region director of human resources at Frito Lay Inc. with over 12 years of experience in managing employee relations and change. He has research and writing interest in diversity, employee relations and employee involvement.


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