HR Management & Compliance

Conflict Management at Work: Don’t Let Things Fester

“Frontline supervisors are terrified by the idea of conflict,” says Dennis A. Davis, Ph.D., “but conflict is a normal part of the work environment.” Fortunately, he says, careful management of conflict can be successful in reducing or eliminating it.

Davis is the director of client training for the national law firm of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, PC. His remarks came during a recent audio conference sponsored by our parent company, BLR.

When conflict festers, productivity suffers and negativity spreads, Davis says. Unfortunately, without training, supervisors just won’t deal with conflict until it’s too late.

Here are his tips for helping your supervisors and managers effectively handle conflict:

It’s Part of the Territory

Mediating a workplace conflict can be very tough — but it comes with the territory as a manager or supervisor. Make sure that your supervisors understand that the presence of conflict doesn’t mean that they are doing a poor job, Davis says.

It Won’t Go Away

Don’t let supervisors fool themselves or be in denial about conflict. (“If I just wait, it will go away.”) Usually, the disagreement or conflict doesn’t vanish. Instead, it goes underground, festering just out of sight. “That means it doesn’t get brought to your attention until it’s huge,” Davis says.

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Sit Down Together

The first thing for the supervisor to do is to sit down with the parties. (If the conflict might lead to an investigation — for example, if the disagreement involves alleged sexual harassment or illegal bias — meeting with both parties may not be advisable. An investigation is more likely a better way to go, Davis says.

You don’t want supervisors to sit down independently with each party, Davis says. When they do that, they put the antagonist in the role of trying to convince the supervisor that he or she is right and the other person is wrong.

State the Rules

Start by stating the ground rules for the meeting, Davis says. For example:

  1. All issues are fair game. We can discuss anything or everything that’s causing stress.
  2. Everybody will have a chance to be heard — but
  3. Only one speaker and conversation at a time.
  4. Comments must be directed to the facilitator (to discourage argument).
  5. Each individual will speak for himself or herself only.
  6. Challenges and disagreements are acceptable — but they must be respectful, and parties may not interrupt each other.
  7. Focus on the issue, project, or task, not on personalities.
  8. Make “I” statements, not “You” statements. It’s a semantic shift, but it’s important, Davis says. “You did this” and “You did that” immediately turn people off.

Consider Printing the Rules

Consider printing the rules out, he adds. “You’ll be amazed at how well this sticks. Once several people have been through the process, you’ll hear the rules come up in other contexts: ‘You just violated number 3.'”

Seek Small Agreements

Throughout the meeting, says Davis, seek out small ways for the parties to agree with each other — the problem itself, the solutions to pursue, or their worst fears. For example: It’s time for a break. (“I can agree with that.”)

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Ask for Solutions

Ask each employee to describe specific actions they’d like to see the other involved worker(s) take to remedy the problem.

Push for Consensus on What Needs to Happen

Push for a consensus on the steps that can be taken to solve the problem — and set a later deadline to review progress. If the parties walk out and someone hasn’t bought into the solution, it won’t happen, Davis says.

Finally, make sure the participants know that the situation can’t continue, that it has to come to a resolution, and that if it doesn’t there will be discipline.

In tomorrow’s CED, we’ll give you Davis’s tips on handling employee anger and violent statements, plus an introduction to a unique resource for HR managers in small, or even one-person, departments.

Download your free copy of 7 Steps for Preventing Workplace Violence today!

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