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Training & Development: Extending the Olive Branch

HR Magazine, November 2002

Conflict resolution training helps employees and managers defuse skirmishes.

When Fernando Costa became divisional manufacturing manager at MM Kembla Products in Kembla, Australia, relationships between management, supervisory and shop floor personnel had broken down, and interactions often resulted in confrontation. “Dialogues were non-existent and threats were the acceptable way of putting a position forward. Any issue—no matter how trivial—would be addressed through the union representatives,” says Costa, who manages the tube division of the copper tube, fittings, wire and rod manufacturer.

The company decided to offer conflict resolution training, and, two years later, the benefits are evident. “There is a total change in the way people talk to each other today,” Costa says. Union representatives no longer use abusive language to intimidate management, and management addresses problems more effectively, using the conflict resolution techniques they learned. Employees can resolve some issues without involving senior management, and without increasing tensions on the floor.

Conflict resolution programs can defuse problems before they escalate to strikes or lawsuits, as well as improve employee morale, increase productivity, decrease absenteeism and lower turnover, proponents say.

“Most senior managers and line managers don’t recognize the incredible cost of conflict to organizations,” says Stewart Levine, author of Getting to Resolution: Turning Conflict into Collaboration (Berrett-Koehler, 1998). “About 20 percent of Fortune 500 senior executives’ time is spent in litigation-related activities.”

Daniel Dana, president and founder of Mediation Training Institute International, a conflict management training provider in Prairie Village, Kan., agrees. “Unmanaged employee conflict is perhaps the largest reducible cost in organizations today—and probably the least recognized. It is estimated that over 65 percent of performance problems result from strained relationships between employees—not from deficits in individual employees’ skill or motivation,” says Dana, author of Conflict Resolution: Mediation Tools for Everyday Worklife (McGraw-Hill, 2001).

Companies such as MM Kembla are discovering that training employees and managers to tackle and reduce conflicts, rather than allowing problems to fester, can have a widespread impact on the workplace.

Roots of Conflict

Conflict resolution training begins by examining why conflict exists, both in a general sense and specific to the company.

“Conflict is normal and can be a positive process to facilitate change,” says Cynthia B. Stotlar, SPHR, president of Creative Business Solutions LLC, an employment and training consulting firm in Topeka, Kan. Causes of conflict include stress, different backgrounds and perspectives, as well as the need for consensus, she says. Also, the increased demand for teamwork over individual contributions has sparked tensions.

Every industry has its own conflicts. However, some are more prone to tension than others. For example, in health care, there are wide gaps in employees’ levels of education. Those with more education may be condescending to the less-educated workers, Stotlar says. Another industry that faces regular conflict is manufacturing: Sales sometimes promises more than production can provide, and research and development promotes changes they can’t implement.

Costa agrees that conflicts can be specific to the organization, and that training should reflect that. “A conflict resolution program will only be successful if it is based on the specific issues of the group,” he says. When MM Kembla held its workshops, the training provider interviewed participants individually to identify the sources of conflict in the organization.

Training Programs

“The term ‘conflict resolution’ commonly refers to the process by which people with opposing positions on issues arrive at mutually acceptable solutions through collaborative problem solving,” says Richard Hart, director of professional services and co-founder of ProActive ReSolutions, a conflict resolution training and intervention services company in International Falls, Minn.

“Conflict resolution training falls into two categories: training people to effectively settle their differences and training people to act as neutral third parties in helping others achieve collaborative resolutions,” Hart says. The most effective programs teach both skills, though perhaps not to the same employees.

Training programs should also teach mediation techniques. In mediation, each employee tells his or her side of the story and listens to other employees’ viewpoints, then they reach an agreement with contingencies in case things don’t go as planned, Levine says.

Teaching employees how to communicate better is a key component of conflict resolution training. Participants should learn to clearly state their needs, actively listen and calmly state their opinions, trainers say.

A typical training session may last from a few hours to a few days and may consist of both lecture and role-playing. The instructor describes effective conversation techniques—use definitive wording, avoid inflammatory language, separate emotions from the situation—and explains how to actively listen—make eye contact, lean toward the speaker and nod.

Next, participants may learn third-party mediation, such as negotiations a supervisor would oversee, or self-mediation, such as negotiations between an employee and a co-worker, trainers say.

Finally, participants learn to formulate agreements, or contracts, that spell out each person’s roles and responsibilities. Such contracts also list the consequences of breaking the pact.

The trainer may use the session to mediate actual disputes, both to teach mediation techniques and to defuse a current conflict.

Companies may choose to train specific departments that tend to have an excessive amount of conflict. Otherwise, it may be most cost-effective to offer the training only to managers and supervisors. However, some companies opt to provide training for all employees.

For instance, at Iowa State University in Ames, all employees are eligible for conflict resolution seminars, and there is a specific course for managers, says Marlise L. McCammon, director of employee relations. “We feel that it is an important competency for managers to acquire.”

But some of her managers disagree. “They think the problem is between those two employees. ‘Am I supposed to baby-sit these people?’ But that is not my perspective,” she says. “It is management’s responsibility to manage the work environment and hold employees responsible and accountable for their behavior.”

Training Pays Off

“Teaching conflict management skills has two major strengths: It enhances productivity and can mitigate circumstances that could escalate and provide the risk of litigation to the institution,” says McCammon.

Fewer conflicts also result in higher morale, Hart notes. “People tend to minimize relationship problems because they feel uncomfortable and lack effective procedural ways of addressing them, short of disciplining people. Conflict resolution training empowers employees to deal with things early on.”

Moreover, McCammon points out that the morale boost goes beyond those directly involved in the conflict. “When you have employees that are stonewalling each other, that affects the entire work environment. Everyone around them experiences that tension,” she says.

For example, Gary Ford, training manager at Nintendo of America Inc., a company that creates interactive entertainment in Redmond, Wash., tells the story of two employees whose conflict sapped time and energy from themselves, two directors and a senior vice president: “About six months ago, I mediated between two interdependent employees who were not able to accomplish all their work due to their strained relationship. We spent three-and-a-half hours in mediation, and they are now able to resolve their differences with each other. It has decreased their stress level, increased their productivity and saved a significant amount of time for their managers.”

Teaching employees to properly deal with conflicts also can cut the risks and costs of litigation. “This training can reduce the cost of litigation by enabling supervisors and employees to effectively handle problems before they escalate,” says Kristina Morrison, director of programs for the American Arbitration Association, a New York-based nonprofit organization that resolves disputes.

The training also can affect the bottom line in other ways. “Exit interviews reveal that chronic unresolved conflict acts as a decisive factor in at least 50 percent of all [voluntary] departures,” says Dana, so reducing conflicts can increase retention.

The Bottom Line

How much does conflict resolution training cost? Flat fees for outside consultants run between $1,000 and $4,000 per day. Some trainers charge fees based on the number of participants in the course. In that case, it can cost $200 to $400 per person per day. However, there are many nonprofit organizations dedicated to mediation. Such organizations are often willing to conduct training programs for a nominal fee. In-house trainers can decrease the costs even further.

“I spent $300 to become certified to deliver the managerial mediation course. I now deliver that seminar in-house with a cost of $50 per participant for materials, plus the cost of my time and the salaries of participants during the training,” says Ford. “I hire a local consultant to facilitate the training for employees who are trying to resolve their own conflicts with co-workers. With facilitator fees and materials, we pay about $175 per participant.”

Evaluating Effectiveness

To track the return on investment of conflict resolution training, review productivity, absenteeism, turnover and disability claim rates. “Look at the number of grievances that come into HR,” Stotlar recommends.

Hart suggests tracking other metrics, including mental health problems, such as depression and substance abuse; the number and cost of legal claims; violent incidents in the workplace; and the number and length of labor union strikes.

However, Ford describes a different approach: “I hold follow-up lunches about a month after training. If employees are able to provide examples of how they’ve applied the skills presented in training, I call that a success. If they haven’t changed their behavior, I question the effectiveness of the training and explore whether the culture might somehow hinder them from using the skills presented. It was through this process that I eliminated our previous program, and through this process that I determined that our current program is working.”

Companies that provide conflict resolution training and a supportive environment will see results. “Improved conflict resolution skills are a gift you can give your employees that pays for itself and increases their quality of life both at work and home,” Stotlar says.

“Thirty years ago, I was told that my conflict resolution skills were ‘the pits’ and, consequently, was denied a promotion,” she says. Stotlar attended workshops and developed those weak skills, and was subsequently promoted several times. “ I am very grateful that someone long ago noticed I needed training and afforded me the opportunity.”

Kathryn Tyler is a Wixom, Mich.-based freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer.


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