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Got conflict? Help managers know what to do

It’s a rare workplace that seldom experiences conflict. In fact, a 2008 global study on workplace conflict found that 85 percent of employees in the study experienced conflict at some level, and 36 percent of U.S. employees said they had to deal with conflict always or frequently. Globally, that figure was just 29 percent. 

With so many employees dealing with conflict, it’s important for the human resources department to know how to guide managers and supervisors in their search for ways to resolve clashes. Di Ann Sanchez, president and founder of DAS HR Consulting in Hurst, Texas, conducted the webinar Conflict Management for Supervisors and HR: How to Train Well and Manage Wisely recently in which she outlined the top reasons for conflict and provided tips for resolving it.

Top reasons for conflict
The 2008 Global Human Capital Report identified reasons for conflict in the workplace, and Sanchez focuses on what she considers the top five: personality clashes, warring egos, poor performance, stress, and heavy workloads.

In dealing with personality clashes, Sanchez says managers and supervisors need to turn the warring employees’ attention to the team’s goals. Personality clashes are difficult to manage because they focus on what’s personal, but getting employees to focus on team goals and not on each other can help. “Ask them to resolve issues together,” she says. “The more you focus on what the group needs, the less they’ll focus on themselves.” It’s the manager’s job to mediate, rather than solve the problem for the employees in conflict.

Focusing on the organization’s goals also is useful in dealing with warring egos, which come in to play when people disagree on beliefs and values. People in that kind of conflict can’t see that they’re the issue, Sanchez says. But by focusing on the company’s principles, not the individual’s beliefs, progress can be made.

When conflict is caused by performance, supervisors and managers need to communicate their expectations and give the employee the opportunity to improve. Conflict often comes when the supervisor tells an employee he or she isn’t performing well and the employee doesn’t think the same way.

“You need to give them clear examples of your expectations and how they’re not meeting your expectations,” Sanchez says. She suggests focusing on what will be good performance in the future rather than dwelling on past mistakes.

When stress is the cause of conflict, supervisors and managers need to understand the consequences. Stress can lead to sickness, absenteeism, and loss of productivity, Sanchez says. The workplace itself can cause stress, but employees also suffer stress at work because of stress in their personal lives.

Heavy workloads also produce conflict, particularly when departments aren’t organized to achieve success and cross-departmental projects aren’t well understood. Tasks that take too much time are a sure sign of conflict, Sanchez says, but work-flow charts and well-written job descriptions can minimize the damage.

Resolving conflict
Sanchez identifies five styles for handling conflict: collaboration, avoidance, accommodation, competition, and compromise. Each style has its place, but collaboration is “the win-win ideal solution,” she says. But using collaboration takes a high degree of a manager’s commitment and time. When the manager and employees in conflict collaborate to resolve conflict, they can explore root causes and find constructive, sustainable solutions.

Although avoidance sounds like a poor way to tackle conflict, Sanchez says it has its positive aspects. “Sleeping on it can help us calm down and think about what really happened,” she says. The trick for managers is to make sure they’re not using avoidance as an excuse for not addressing conflict.

“So if your gut is to avoid, remember it’s OK to do it to calm down and gather your thoughts, but get a game plan together. A common challenge for management is to know when to use avoidance,” Sanchez says.

The accommodation style involves understanding what the other person wants and the manager doing what he or she can to ensure that happens. Accommodation is a great approach for customer relations and can be best for the short term, but the drawback is that others’ needs aren’t being met. Managers who use accommodation are peacemakers, Sanchez says, but too much accommodation can show that a manager is weak and unwilling to make changes.

The competition style calls for the manager to get what he or she wants. Managers using the competing approach are resolute in what they want and believe. The approach can be useful in emergency situations, but if it’s misused it can squelch feedback from employees, Sanchez says.

In the compromise approach, the involved parties each get a slice of what they want, and everybody may end up feeling equally unhappy, Sanchez says. Too much compromise signals that the manager doesn’t have firm values, and too little compromise leads to further power struggles.

Positive aspects of conflict
Although conflict causes problems, good can come of it. Sanchez points to data in the 2008 Global Human Capital Report that found that 54 percent of the U.S. employees participating said conflict gave them a better understanding of others, and 40 percent found conflict led to better solutions in the workplace.

Sanchez says the top goal for managers and supervisors when tackling conflict is to ensure that the involved employees will come away with an improved working relationship. That can lead to increased motivation and higher performance from the team.

Need more tips and strategies for dealing with conflict in the workplace? Listen to Di Ann Sanchez’s webinar Conflict Management for Supervisors and HR: How to Train Well and Manage Wisely. For more information, go to or call 800-274-6774.