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Bosses Seen as Ineffective Conflict Managers

​​When asked to rate their manager on a list of specific behaviors, most employees agreed their boss is open to suggestions, acts in an ethical manner and listens to employees’ concerns. However, 41 percent disagreed when asked if their boss handles workplace conflict effectively.

In June 2012, Healthy Companies International, a management consulting firm, surveyed 2,700 employees from its in-house database of senior managers, HR executives and C-suite leaders to examine employee perceptions of 20 specific manager behaviors.

At the top of the list of behaviors, 86 percent of respondents agreed the person to whom they report acts in an ethical manner. By comparison, two behaviors tied for the lowest positive score: just 59 percent of employees said their boss deals capably with workplace conflicts and motivates employees during adversity.

“Conflict occurs in every organization,” said Stephen Parker, president of Healthy Companies International, in a news statement. And almost always it falls to the boss to handle workplace discord, he noted. “It comes with the job and, in fact, is a core element in assessing the performance of an executive with supervisory responsibility.”

Sources of Workplace Conflict

Parker added that conflict often arises as a result of:

  • Management succession.
  • The organization’s growth strategy and its execution.
  • Generating revenue vs. modeling the company culture.
  • Inequity of roles and resources.

While conflicts can result from a clash of personalities or styles, they might have more to do with legitimate business issues. Thus, tackling the disagreement head on might help an organization examine the problem, as well as issues and alternatives, he suggested. “Conflict is oxygen and brings issues into the open,” Parker said.

“I always encourage people to solve problems and conflicts at the lowest level possible—among one another—before getting others involved, if possible,” Judy Lindenberger of The Lindenberger Group, a New York City-based consultancy, told SHRM Online.

Group training and individual coaching can help, she said.

What Not to Do About Workplace Conflict

According to Parker, bosses might make a difficult situation worse if they fail to understand the exact nature of the issue or become defensive or confrontational. “Getting emotionally invested, ignoring the feelings of the people involved or denying one’s own part … each is a trap the boss can fall into,” he added.

However, inaction by the boss, such as ignoring inappropriate behavior or overlooking missed deadlines, can result in conflict as well, according to Parker. “Inability to manage conflict creates more conflict,” he explained. “When the CEO just functions as a peacemaker the effect may be to dampen down creativity. The challenge is to manage the conflict productively.”

HR’s Role in Managing Conflict

“Guidelines for appropriate workplace behavior need to be in the employee manual, in job descriptions and in the performance appraisal process,” Lindenberger said.

In an e-mail to SHRM Online, Parker encouraged HR professionals to model the behavior that best facilitates conflict management:

  • Summarize the situation for the manager in an objective and calm manner.
  • Acknowledge that there are different perspectives and interests in the situation.
  • Be honest about HR’s interests and preferences.
  • Commit to honoring the manager’s decision regardless of the outcome.
  • Model team-oriented behavior after the manager decides how to proceed.

Parker wrote that some managers prefer to deny conflict rather than face it because they “wrongly think workplace conflicts are a negative reflection on them.” He reiterated that when managers avoid managing conflict it “only makes matters worse.”

Developing Conflict Management Skills

“Bosses need to get comfortable with a repertoire of conflict management skills,” Parker said in the statement, such as avoiding becoming emotionally invested in a particular outcome and keeping parties focused on the business, not personalities.

Parker provided SHRM Online with a list of tips for managers faced with a conflict:

  • Gather the facts.
  • Consider people's feelings—but don't let people's emotions rule the day.
  • Feel free to ask for time to think about the situation and come to a decision.
  • Communicate the decision with a concise explanation of how the decision was made.
  • Communicate the importance of separating the problem from the people involved.
  • Ask people to respect your decision.
  • Continue to work for the good of the team and move on.

Employees will respect a manager who considers all of the facts and points of view and then makes a decision and helps employees move on, he added.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Resources:

Managing Interpersonal Conflicts in the Workplace: Training For Managers, SHRM Sample Presentation

Conflict Resolution: Let Employees Find the Solutions, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, June 2012

What Not to Do with Employee Complaints, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, January 2011

Employee Relations Discipline Home Page


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