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Desktop DRAMA Managers must learn to defuse workplace conflict

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Every workplace experiences some sort of drama, yet, believe it or not, I seem to receive more complaints about workplace conflicts in the winter months than at any other time of the year. I'm not sure of any reason other than the fact employees can't easily go outside to let off steam. Perhaps it's the stress of the upcoming Christmas season, or perhaps the stress of one's over-extended credit or perhaps the long, very foreboding cold days of January and February. Excuses, excuses!

And believe me, the drama of conflict in a workplace can be pretty petty. Someone complains about radio noise, too many smoke breaks, coffee breaks that overlap other workers, or a lunch that disappears from the fridge. Then again, more serious issues arise because job duties are not well defined, one worker attempts to dictate to another or one worker is simply not carrying their share of the workload. These issues will continue to escalate, especially when the boss tends to avoid conflict and never steps in to resolve the conflict in its early stages.

At this point, I can just envision that small-business owner or departmental leader shaking their head in desperation as they are forced to deal with their untimely conflicts. They frankly don't want to deal with internal, interpersonal conflict; they want to get on with the key mission of their business. Yet, if the conflict, petty or otherwise, is not dealt with, there can be huge costs to the organization and a huge human-resource headache for management.

For instance, if employees are spending all their time gossiping, protecting their turf, retaliating against each other, recruiting colleagues to support their side of the issue, and planning their personal defence, they aren't working on their assigned duties. What happens to productivity? What happens to customer service? I can guarantee that employee morale will be low and that the tension in the air will be so thick you could cut it with a knife.

What about management time? Research shows that managers typically spend about three hours per week dealing with employee conflict. Considering manager and employee salaries, this translates into hundreds of thousands of lost working days and lost dollars.

This figure doesn't include the cost of the many sick days people engaged in conflict will take in order to avoid the pain they experience at work. Just look at the cost of replacing an employee who quits. That cost alone is often more than three times the employee's original salary. So, there's no way around it, conflict is costly.

However, the question that needs to be asked is why so many managers turn a blind eye and avoid workplace conflict and what can be done to overcome this resistance? Disliking conflict and confrontation is no excuse. So, what can managers do to develop effective conflict management skills? Where does one start?

According to Tim Ursiny, author of the Cowards' Guide to Conflict: Empowering Solutions for Those Who Would Rather Run than Fight, the first thing to do is learn to confront your personal fear. However, he also suggests that fear will not be conquered until there is a history of more positive dealings with conflict.

Therefore, managers need to examine their fear of confrontation. Some people are uncomfortable because they perceive conflict to be similar to hurting the other person. Other managers need to be liked and/or need approval and they don't want to create the loss of a relationship. Some individuals only perceive conflict in a negative light or as a win/lose proposition rather than seeing conflict as an opportunity to create a win/win solution and improve relationships.

When confronted with an employee conflict, the first thing a manager must do is to determine if he or she will deal with the conflict. The manager can avoid it, give in, be passive aggressive, bully the other person, compromise and/or problem solve with the employee. At the same time the manager needs to examine the fear that is associated with their conflict. Do they fear harm, rejection, loss, anger, or a sense of failure? As well, the manager needs to examine how they feel about the situation.

Next, the manager needs to clarify the source of the conflict. Is there simply a difference in personality style; has poor listening played a role in the conflict; has there been poor instructions or are there issues related to communication styles? The next step involves setting a time and place to speak to the employee. However, if you are very upset about the situation, it would be unwise to deal with things on the spot as you need time to think through and develop a communication plan.

Be careful to focus the discussion on the employee's behaviour and communicate the consequences this behaviour has on the individual's job and the organization. Refrain from using the word "you" because this creates a blame scenario that often only heightens the conflict. Ask the employee for their perception of the issue. Clarify the problem by asking five key questions: who, what, when, where and how. Focus only on the issue and be careful not to get into too many details. Avoid jumping into the conversation with a list of "but, but, but."

At the same time, pay attention to your body language and ensure that your verbal and non-verbal behaviours are consistent with each other. If not, the listener will be confused and your proposals will not be seen as sincere. If you find yourself getting emotional about the issue, then use a strategy to calm yourself down and/or indicate you will take a time out. In this case, move to a new location in order to get some personal space, quietly examine your emotions and reframe your thinking so that you can continue the discussion.

Involve the employee in proposing solutions to the problem. If there is an option that is satisfactory, then create an agreement and a timeline for a review. If you need to think about or further examine the implications of an option, then schedule a second meeting with the employee. Be sure to document the details of the discussion, the agreed behaviour change and the timeline. This data will become important should a progressive disciplinary process and termination be invoked at a later date.

The ability to manage conflict begins with what we learned in childhood so don't expect to become an expert overnight. Attend courses, examine various strategies, adopt a methodology that works best for you and focus on continuous improvement throughout your career.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, is president of Legacy Bowes Group and vice-president of Waterhouse Executive Search. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 H1

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