June 14, 2024

Conflict Resolution

A Cautionary Tale

Originally posted on LinkedIn October 23, 2023

Yesterday, I received a call from an owner who doesn’t usually call outside her weekly coaching session, so I picked up immediately. She related a story about two employees having a verbal confrontation that included unkind words and some off-color language. The owner had overheard the confrontation but hadn’t stepped in because she was busy and hoped the two would work it out themselves.

Another manager was now relaying that one of those involved was saying he couldn’t work in a place where he wasn’t respected.  The owner wanted to know what I thought she should do. I asked questions about the situation and concluded that both employees had contributed to the dispute. I asked her what she had done so far, and she relayed that she had done nothing because she had a lot on her plate. I felt the situation was critical because at least one employee talked openly with other managers. I advised her to speak with each separately and ask coaching questions, leading to each person admitting they could have acted differently. Once she got them to that point, she could encourage them to apologize. I prompted the owner to remind each that the company culture is respectful and that swearing and name calling is never acceptable in the workplace. I suggested ending with, “Let’s put this in the rearview mirror and move forward from here.”

About ten minutes after this advice, I got a text sharing that one of the two employees had resigned at the end of the day. I asked if she tried to save the employee;’ her text replied: “There was no saving her.” Then I texted, “How long ago did the altercation happen?”  a question I really should have asked earlier. Her text reply: “About three weeks ago.” I thought silently; plenty of time to look for, interview, and get another position.

When Owners Avoid Conflict

In today’s fast-paced business environment, owners have many responsibilities and typically handle additional tasks beyond running their companies. Ordering supplies, estimating projects, selling, and making deliveries are often part of a busy owner’s day.  One aspect that is often overlooked or avoided is conflict resolution between employees. Owners tell me stories of interpersonal conflict between employees and between managers and employees, and the stories often end with “I don’t want to be a “babysitter” or “I don’t have time to deal with this.”

When these situations arise, I coach owners and managers on the importance of a company culture where disputes can be resolved amicably, and the downside of letting hurt feelings fester. But far too often, I hear the story after an employee or manager has resigned. When I ask questions about the length of time the conflict existed, the answers tell me that the turnover could have been avoided.

When owners avoid conflicts between themselves and employees, between employees, or between managers and employees, they inadvertently create a culture that fosters disrespect, allows conflicts to escalate, and ultimately impacts employee attrition, productivity, and, very often, customer experience.

The Growing Need for Conflict Resolution

As Millennials and Gen Z employees become an increasingly large portion of the workforce, it becomes critical for owners to instill a culture that emphasizes respect and provides a framework for conflict resolution. These digital natives are far more likely to have a texting battle than a verbal one. They are used to altercations where they can’t look into the other person’s eyes.

Even for your older employees, COVID-19 and its aftermath provided an environment that may have allowed them to avoid interpersonal conflicts more often because of remote work. Now that more coworkers are physically back to work, employees may fail to comprehend the implications of a “real-time” passive-aggressive comment, an eye roll, or a short answer when looking at someone face to face.

Since many younger employees lack experience handling conflicts in a professional setting and many older workers are out of practice, owners and managers need to offer guidance and model behaviors to help the entire workforce understand how to avoid and address workplace conflicts.

Avoiding conflict resolution may seem convenient in the short term, but the long-term consequences can harm any organization. For companies, these consequences include higher turnover, poor employee morale, more product or service issues, and poor customer service.

Speed Matters: Swift Action for Long-Lasting Solutions

Conflicts can easily snowball into more significant issues when left to fester. As an owner, it is crucial to address issues swiftly and effectively. Proactive engagement in resolving disputes at the earliest signs of tension prevents future escalations and creates a positive environment that encourages employees to address problems responsibly.

Leading by Example: Modeling Healthy Conflict Resolution

In addition to modeling good behavior, business owners must teach appropriate conflict resolution strategies to create a healthy work environment. By demonstrating effective techniques and leading the way, owners empower their employees to navigate difficult conversations on their own, fostering a more independent and unified workforce.

When a company invests in building a culture that prioritizes respectful conflict resolution, the benefits are multifold. Employees in such environments are more likely to be productive, remain loyal to the company, and provide exceptional customer experiences.

Key strategies that company owners can employ include:

  • Keeping an ear to the ground to know when conflicts arise in the workplace.

  • Providing training workshops and resources on conflict resolution.

  • Setting clear expectations and policies for resolving workplace disputes.

  • Encouraging open communication and feedback among employees and management.

  • Regularly reviewing and updating conflict resolution methods as necessary.

  • Monitoring resolution efforts and getting involved quickly when disputes occur, and communication breaks down.

  • Regularly scheduled one-on-one sessions between managers and employees. In addition to regular feedback and career development conversations, these sessions offer employees an opportunity to confidentially discuss conflicts in the workplace before they erupt. Managers can provide coaching to help employees address issues or intercede if the situation warrants it.

Employees dealing with outside stressors may become irritable, easily frustrated, and less patient. This can lead to conflicts with coworkers or even management. As a company owner, it is important to be aware of the impact of external stress on employees and how it may manifest in the workplace, leading to disputes and a negative environment.

Company owners must have a clear process to effectively resolve conflicts arising from external stress. This could include setting up confidential channels for employees to address their concerns and providing access to counseling or support services. Additionally, owners should be open to adjusting workloads or schedules for employees with significant external stress.

When an employee’s external stress manifests as conflict in the workplace, the company owner needs to approach the situation with empathy and understanding. Here’s a process to follow:

1.     Arrange a private meeting: Set up a one-on-one discussion in a neutral setting. This gives employees a safe space to express their concerns without feeling judged or embarrassed in front of their coworkers. (Note: Regular one-on-one conversations with employees to discuss departmental improvement plans and career advancement help remove the stigma of being called into the principal’s office when a conflict exists.)

2.     Open the conversation tactfully: Begin the discussion by acknowledging the issue without blame. This could start as follows: “I’ve noticed some tension recently, and I wanted to check in with you to see if everything’s okay.”

3.     Listen and empathize: Allow the employee to share their perspective. Show empathy and understanding, even if you disagree with everything being said.

4.     Address the issue: Once the employee has opened up about their external stress, steer the conversation towards the impact of their behavior on the workplace. Highlight specific instances where their behavior caused conflict.

5.     Explore solutions together: Collaboratively discuss ways the employee can manage their stress in a way that doesn’t disrupt the workplace. This could involve strategies like taking regular breaks, adjusting their work schedule, or providing resources for stress management.

6.     Follow up: Continually check in with the employee to ensure the agreed-upon solutions have been implemented and assess whether the situation is improving. If necessary, adjust the approach based on progress and feedback.

Conclusion: Embracing the Future of Conflict Resolution

Conflicts in the workplace can be caused by a variety of factors, including external stress. By staying aware of potential sources of stress for employees, having a clear conflict resolution process in place, and acting quickly, owners can effectively manage and minimize conflicts in the workplace. This promotes a positive work environment and improves overall employee satisfaction and retention.

As workforce demographics continue to shift, a focus on building a culture that encourages respect and promotes the resolution of disputes quickly and effectively will pay dividends in the form of building your employer brand, reduced attrition, increased productivity, and improved customer experiences.

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