There are typically three methods employed to manage workplace conflicts:
- Avoid the issue and let the employees involved know that the work is what matters, not the conflict. Avoidance looks like censure, a write-up, a conversation in private or in public, or a mandated training.
- Accommodate each employee and try to negotiate with each party to get them to return to work, not the conflict. Accommodation looks like supervisory silence, employees teaming up and deciding what’s going to happen in the conflict situation, or not actually doing the work at all.
- Attack each employee and make sure that any other employees know that the work is what matters, not the conflict. Attack looks like threatening to fire employees, a write-up, a “disciplinary warning,” a mandated training, or even actually firing somebody.
None of these methods is effective at preventing, addressing and resolving employee conflicts. All the methods represent a hybrid of personalized conflict management styles, poor, little or no organizational training, and deeply ingrained organizational cultures that resist shifting for a variety of reasons.
There is, of course, another choice.
The goals for managing conflict in the workplace should go beyond merely the metric of “Is the work getting done in spite of what’s going on?” and should shift to “Is the productivity of the people being impacted because of a conflict fueled work environment?”
Here are some alternate metrics to consider:
Measure the resolution of conflict as a value that is offered as a customer service to internal stakeholders (i.e. employees). This metric can be tied to specific benchmarks with consequences attached to missing the benchmark—or attaining it.
Develop the process of conflict resolution through creating systems as a series of steps that are antifragile in nature—flexible and sturdy at the same time. Most systems in organizations cannot withstand external shocks (i.e. economic downturns) or internal shocks (i.e. a sexual harassment lawsuit) well. This is why any resolution system based in mediation, arbitration or even litigation must be flexible based on the nature, type and intensity of conflicts.
Implement training that focuses on three levels: knowledge gain, skill set gain, and emotional gain. Most corporate training is mandatory, meaningless and ultimately not absorbed or used by the employees who need to absorb and use it. This is primarily because most employee training in conflict resolution focuses on skill attainment and some knowledge gain, but there is little attention paid to emotional content. Mindfulness training, de-escalation tactics and active listening strategies are the first step in this direction, but in reality, after 100 years of psychology and therapeutic methods, there are many, many more.
Coach managers, supervisors and others higher in the hierarchical chain to attend trainings and get involved in the conversation around conflict in the workplace and what can be done about it. Many employees are elevated to supervisor or managerial status without fully understanding how they can motivate and encourage people, what their own conflict management styles are, and how to develop competing styles in a work environment that is perceived as resource deficient. This reality seems easy to overcome (“We’ll just bring in an outside trainer!”) but without follow-up, support and coaching from their supervisors, the training is just as useless for them as it is for the employees they supervise.
Elevate departments, divisions and even employee positions that were previously viewed as “hand slapping” or “regulatory” into change agents, charged with supporting the development and maintenance of new systems after the training is over and the consultant is gone. Raising the profile and status of human resources from a regulatory/litigation prevention arm of an organization to the status that it deserves as a change agent takes time, training and trust. It also requires a shift in the cultural thinking of C-suite executives about how their organizational culture can change its approach to change.
When organizations complain about the establishing of these metrics and relegate them to the province of HR, they surrender the ability to create workplaces that employees desire to be productive inside of.
Establishing a new management style, developing training and following up with it through coaching and implementation of outcomes, and means testing resolution strategies is not just “fluff.” Taking such actions represents the only way forward for many organizations. Past short terms wins that appeal to shareholders and the media and toward long term gains that create genuine, long lasting cultures.
Saying to employees in conflict “Just get back to work,” just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Download the new FREE eBook courtesy of Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT), on Forgiveness and Reconciliation by clicking the link here.
-Peace Be With You All-
Jesan Sorrells, MA
Principal Conflict Engagement Consultant
Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT)
Email HSCT: firstname.lastname@example.org