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Managing (Workplace) Conflict

by Kerri Harris

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Conflict is characteristic in any situation that brings diverse groups together to manage tasks and obstacles. Nowhere is that more apparent than in business environments based on hierarchical structures where teams are inherited and divergent objectives create barriers to effective teamwork. Conflict resolution is among the many tasks delegated to managers, yet it is often the most difficult to master.

From individual performance appraisals to an all-out assault within a project team, managers are expected to not only have the wisdom of Solomon, but also the patience of a saint. Yet often, this skill is not cultivated, leaving many managers unable to adapt to instances that can bring even the best performing machine to a screeching halt. To help avoid this from happening, there are various tools and tactics that an organization can adopt to not only diffuse immediate threats to productivity, but also alleviate potential issues in the long run.

To support these ideas, this article addresses the following:

  • Objectives as a Navigation Tool
  • Diffusing Conflict in Teams
  • Identifying Barriers
  • Tactics for Motivating Change

Objectives as a Navigation Tool

Every organization has documented objectives and a code of conduct designed to:

  • Regulate what tasks are important
  • Set expectations for employee interactions

Think of these as your personal navigation tools, designed to help you and your team chart a course through the year. Using these objectives to manage your team can pay big dividends in resolving many causes of conflict. Whether you set objectives annually or quarterly, managers must help employees set measurable objectives that are based on the larger goals of the overall department. Engage your employees in setting these objectives and deciding what reasonable measures will be used. Once you have their buy-in, you will also have set clear expectations for their performance.

After objectives are documented, managers and employees must take time periodically to review progress against all objectives and measures. During these meetings, it is essential to create an open dialog where the employee feels comfortable expressing difficulties, concerns, and is free to seek guidance. Use these sessions as a coaching opportunity, focusing on identifying barriers and helping employees find their own solutions. Obstacles to performance will become evident well in advance of catastrophic problems, giving you advance time to correct errors and find resolution in partnership with your subordinates.

Diffusing Conflict in Teams

Lee Iacocca, former CEO of the Chrysler Motor Company, reflected on the near chaos he inherited that resulted from a lack of communication. In his 1986 autobiography, Iacocca recalled spending his first few weeks on the job assessing his team’s obstacles saying, “All of Chrysler’s problems really boiled down to the same thing. Nobody knew who was on first. There was no team, only a collection of independent players…”

Pre-meetings with individual team members are an important part of a communications plan. As a lead member of the team, your facilitation through documented updates, interfacing with each team member, and collaborating with other departments is key to ensuring objectives are met. Therefore, take plenty of time to:

  • Speak with each individual about project objectives, timelines, and the expertise each is expected to bring to the group.
  • Clearly define the roles of each team member and outline who will lead the team through specific phases of the project.

Charles Margerison and Dick McCann illustrate this key role in their book, Team Management,“[Skilled managers] have not only been able to allocate work to members of the team and give guidance and direction on goals, but have enabled the members to work together in a co-operative way. It is this last point which is often the difference between individual effort and effective teamwork.”

Identifying Barriers

At some point in every manager’s career, there comes a time when a once bright star begins to fade. Disadvantaged virtual managers may not see the change immediately, missing signs when staff isn’t on-site. As work quality begins to suffer and an attitude shift begins to emerge, even the most passive managers should take action immediately. This is not the time to comfort troubled subordinates, nor is it appropriate to react decisively with threats. Instead, a middle ground is the best bet for a serious and objective fact-finding mission.

Schedule a one-on-one meeting with the troubled employee. Begin by outlining the problem with clear, detailed facts and examples. Provide lavish praise and compliments for appropriate behavior, followed by a clear statement that the present behavior is unacceptable. Refer to your previously documented objectives and expectations, illustrating how the current issue is specifically impacting those goals. Offer reinforcing statements like, “This is so unlike you, “or, “You are capable of so much more.” Give your employee time to respond and listen attentively for action words and probable causes.

Delve deeper into the barriers that relate to workload or other internal obstacles. These are a clear indication that the employee requires assistance. As a manager, it is your responsibility to help remove these barriers through training, intervention with other departments, or a re-evaluation of priorities based on the needs of your group. If issues are personal in nature, there is little you can do to alleviate the situation. Instead, you should offer empathy while establishing new ground rules for the employee in dealing with this issue. And depending on the situation being addressed, additional follow-up may be necessary.

Tactics for Motivating Change

During the most trying times, it can be difficult to remember that every employee has good intentions, despite appearances to the contrary. Bad behavior can result from a simple misunderstanding. This is where communication and motivation become key components in resolving acute and chronic issues.

  • Management by walking around (MBWA) is recognized as the single most effective management tool for assessing day-to-day progress, engaging employees, and promoting direct feedback between teams. Regularly practice this tactic to improve your interaction with employees.
  • Convey a positive attitude and project a confident disposition. Teams respond in kind when they see evidence of belonging to a winning team. Celebrate successes by openly acknowledging great performances.
  • Communicate high expectations and reinforce ideals through example. Expect high performance, referring to your team as “professionals,” “highly motivated,” “creative,” and “best-in-class.” This inspires motivation to meet those ideals. Caution yourself against negative illustrations.
  • Express an open-door policy and mean it! When employees approach you with an idea or problem, stop what you are doing and practice active listening. Encourage a probing dialog that prompts employees to resolve issues themselves. At times, you may be nothing more than a sounding board, but the act itself conveys importance and worth to your employees.
  • Engage teams outside of normal work environments for strategy sessions and collaboration meetings. Promote an atmosphere that is free from the obstacles and status barriers typically associated with employee position/rank. Encourage open participation and discussion from everyone.
  • Charge the worst offender with responsibility for committing others to tasks. Sometimes, allowing the fox to guard the hen house can help reverse negative behaviors.
  • Eliminate the belief that individuals have nothing to lose in failing to act. Clearly outline consequences on a personal level that may result from their inaction.
  • Don’t assume that an email sent is an email read, or read with comprehension. According to a five-year study conducted by IBT-USA, a business training group, the average employee spends almost 8.8 hours per week handling email.

Finally, take a careful look in the mirror if you find that behaviors around you have suddenly changed for an unknown reason. Doctor David Lieberman, author of “How to Change Anybody,” offers the following advice: “Your conduct has a greater influence over other people than you might imagine. Act responsibly yourself, and watch those around you fall in line.” Has anything changed in your conduct or performance that might be contributing to the recent discord in your office? Are you leading by example or exception? Check yourself for a winning attitude and positive speech. Human failures in poise or moral issues can have a widespread effect on subordinates, yet admitting to those mistakes can help you greatly improve relations with your team.

The complexity of current business environments and a dizzying array of electronic communication tools help create opportunities for conflict on a daily basis. Simple misunderstandings can quickly escalate into definite battles. Still, the easiest and most often overlooked solution is old fashioned face-to-face communication. Employ this tactic whenever possible and substitute it with a phone call only when a face-to-face meeting is not possible. The results are immediate and produce measurable benefits with repeated use.


IBT-USA Productivity Study, Productivity Killers

How to Change Anybody , David J. Lieberman, PHD.

Team Management: Practical New Approaches , Charles Margerison and Dick McCann

The Power of Servant Leadership , Robert k. Greenleaf

Kerri Harris is an Interactive Communications Specialist and key member of the Public Relations department at NCR Corporation in Dayton, Ohio. In that role, she is responsible for delivering corporate communications across various electronic and digital media, project management, and customer service. Kerri also coordinates and conducts training programs to improve client services, conflict resolution, and process-improvement techniques. Kerri has completed studies in Phi Theta Kappa’s Leadership Development with Ohio Senator Tom Roberts, and has served as Communication Chair of the Professional Resource Council. Kerri currently serves as Chair for NCR’s Intranet Council and is a volunteer instructor with Junior Achievement, an outreach project educating students in business fundamentals.

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