Can’t We All Just Get Along?

By John T. Mooney Dec 8, 2008
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Q: My boss has asked me to figure out how to get employees in one of our departments to get along better. Any suggestions?

A: Managers typically find themselves in situations of employee misunderstandings or conflicts. HR and business leaders are in positions to create knowledge, understanding and awareness for employees who are not getting along.

Personality clashes, disputes and inappropriate behaviors are signs of people not getting along in the workplace. Early-stage misunderstandings often can be identified quickly by observing employees’ attitudes and body language. Human resource professionals might need to apply specialized coaching skills in these situations, serving as an internal coach.

What should managers consider when focusing on maintaining a positive, constructive work environment? Depending on the situation, a three-step strategy of questioning, active listening and understanding style differences helps managers implement the right course of action.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

Asking the right questions serves to move understanding forward and guides personal discovery. A range of unique questions becomes a tool to find truth or meaning regarding a situation or individual beliefs that might be fueling employee disagreements. Asking skillful questions that evoke discovery, insight or new actions enables employees to take ownership of the situation, helping them to learn new behaviors that can foster more-amicable workplace relationships.

What are you hearing as you demonstrate strong listening skills? Your agenda might guide you as you ascertain specific information. Intuition and knowledge also serve to guide the line of questioning. Style, timing of questions and variety of questions also serve to coach the employee.

Active Listening Key to Understanding Problem Issues

Active listening is challenging and very different from asking questions. In active listening, HR and involved managers are genuinely interested in understanding what employees think, feel or want or what their message means; they are active in checking out their understanding of the situation before responding with their own “new” message.

Active listening requires that HR and managers restate or paraphrase their understanding of the messages they receive and reflect them back to the employees for verification. This verification or feedback process is what distinguishes active listening and makes it effective. HR professionals’ and managers’ self-awareness might influence their decisions and listening abilities if they are placed in a new situation or one of apparent discomfort.

Style Differences

The distinct observable behaviors that two employees demonstrate when they do not get along can be described using a universal behavioral style language. When two employees do not get along, one might demonstrate a dominant behavior style—perhaps forceful, direct and results-oriented. Another might use words that are precise, accurate and detail-oriented as others listen to their careful choice of language to describe their disputes.

Managers are in a key position to influence work relationships and set the tone for a positive environment. The response they choose along with appropriate solutions or measures after a thorough determination of facts and understanding enables employees to get along better, and perhaps acquire skills to resolve their differences and disputes in the future.

John T. Mooney, SPHR, ACC, is the organizational effectiveness manager for Irving, Texas-based Abbott Diagnostics. Mooneyalso is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Organizational Development Special Expertise Panel.

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