Conflict at work is inevitable. Despite this reality, there are many steps that employers can take to avoid and resolve workplace strife. According to a 2014 study, office workers spend, on average, 2.5 hours per week trying to resolve conflict—an expenditure of time that translates into an estimated $359 billion in lost revenue in the United States alone.
My experience as an independent workplace investigator has given me a bird’s eye view of workplace conflict as it unfolds. In my review of allegations made by complainants and the evidence I have uncovered while conducting workplace investigations, I’ve come to see a few patterns. One pattern is that there almost always seems to be a point in time—a decision made (or not made), an action taken (or not taken), or something said (or not said or stated poorly)—when the conflict I’m investigating could have been avoided.
What defines a Workplace Conflict?
When there is a disagreement or misunderstanding between two employees that have differentiating ideas, feelings, perspectives, and beliefs.
The following two-part series offers a 10-point checklist addressing managerial best practices for conflict prevention and resolution while identifying potential “triggering” events or issues and turning points at which companies may be able to take proactive steps to avoid strife, improve workplace culture, boost employee productivity and loyalty and, one hopes, make their businesses employers of choice.
1. Establishing a Positive, Productive, Respectful Workplace Culture
Without establishing this foundation, none of the other suggestions offered here will be effective. A few of the secrets to a good workplace culture include:
- Confronting conflict—or potential conflict—early
- Do not confuse practices to avoid conflict in the workplace with being a leader who avoids conflict! The former involves putting mechanisms in place to diminish the probability of conflict (conflict prevention); the latter is associated with having a personality trait that avoids conflict at any cost (the sign of an ineffective leader).
- Actual and perceived fairness
- Establishing a culture of respectful truth-telling
- Being curious and unafraid to find better ways of doing things
- Creating a culture of continuous learning
- Creating multiple avenues for employees to ascend in their careers
2. Dealing with Organizational Change
Reorganizations. Flattenings of organizational structures. Changes because of economic realities. Mergers and acquisitions or closings of locations or facilities. For any organizational change, make sure you are aware of “triggering” events or issues that can lead to conflict and can answer the following questions from employees: What is the change? Why is the change being made? How will the change affect me?
A common scenario is a leadership team working on change (e.g., a change in operational leaders, human resources, finance, etc.) in a silo. When this team rolls out the plan to the employees who will be affected by the change, those employees have not been a part of the planning process and are therefore unfamiliar with both the plan itself and the reason for the change. The result is almost always a resistance to the proposed change.
Practices to Consider:
- Be careful using language such as the “old” system or the “old” employees, or indicating whether someone is a “good fit.” These are often interpreted as having a bias against older employees or against employees who might not fit the majority demographic of the workforce.
- Recognize the good work that was done under the previous structure, system, etc. Use language that praises past accomplishments but introduces new and exciting opportunities.
- Seek input from those who will be affected and listen to their concerns. Often, the person who is doing the day-to-day work is in an excellent position to provide information about how the changes will work in real life and can point out unintended consequences. Describe why the changes are being made, how the changes are expected to positively impact the company or department, and how the changes will be implemented. Consider providing additional training for employees who will be expected to perform new and different tasks.
- Be honest about potential challenges.
- If the change involves new or different responsibilities for a particular employee or class of employees, explain clearly and in detail what those changes will be, how long they will take to implement, and how the employee will be evaluated based on the new expectations.
- Help employees manage fear and angst.
- Have multiple meetings or send out information periodically as decisions about changes are being made.
- Develop scripts for managers, especially line managers, so that they have a deep understanding of the why, what, and when of the changes and can provide easy-to-share information.
- Develop an FAQ document and distribute it to employees who will be affected.
3. Dealing with Changes in Leadership
At the top of a company or in a department, a change in leadership will be well-served by an accompanying plan that takes into account the growing pains that may be felt as employees adjust to a new leader.
- A new organizational leader (a CEO, president, or senior operational leader) brings with him or her a new team, a new approach, or a new business plan.
- A new department leader is selected from the outside (especially if an internal applicant did not get the promotion), or a leader who wants to go from 0 to 60 quickly (in terms of implementing a new way of running the department or wanting to become “the new sheriff in town”).
- A new department leader is promoted from within.
Practices to Consider:
- Unless there is a dire need for quick action, the tried-and-true “observe-and-then-act” approach can be useful. A commonly cited rule of thumb is for a new leader to spend at least 90 days observing and learning before implementing major changes.
- See above for rules on language. Avoid using language such as “old” system, “old” regime, “old” team, etc.
- Implement robust integration systems for all new employees, particularly new managers who are coming into an environment that is resistant to a change in leadership (or particularly resistant to this new leader).
- Whether you are the recipient of an internal promotion or new to the organization, beware of addressing all problems at once. The most common scenario here is trying to correct performance issues for a long-time underperformer who has been evaluated positively by previous managers.
- If you have a person going from peer to supervisor, develop an immersion or integration program that addresses common issues, particularly how difficult it is going from peer (friend) to supervisor and how important it is to become well-versed on HR issues as a supervisor.
4. Communicating in a Transparent, Precise, and Intentional Way
Though not always easy, it is good practice to create a culture where people learn to respectfully present differing opinions or even complaints. (An increase in the number of complaints offered is not necessarily a bad thing. Numerous studies indicate that objectionable behavior often goes unreported and deprives companies of the opportunity to engage in early conflict resolution.)
When change occurs it is important to use your best skills at wordsmithing to convey appropriate and precise messages. The key is to be methodical, but also compassionate, creative, and consistent. Note, too, that concern with saying the wrong thing can sometimes freeze leaders into doing nothing. (There is an often-cited myth that saying less is better, that sharing too many details is dangerous.) Issues, however, do not go away on their own, despite our wishes or hopes that they would.
- Failing to set expectations (early and often) about the position, department, and company;
- Failing to provide useful performance feedback;
- Failing to prepare for difficult communication (as to discipline, termination, performance improvement plans, etc.);
- Failing to anticipate questions or issues and think about answers;
Practices to Consider:
- Prepare and practice for difficult conversations.
- Develop a script and an FAQ document to address issues that are likely to arise.
- Be precise and transparent. Share appropriate details and information. For example, be compassionate but direct and honest during a meeting concerning a termination of employment. Courts have repeatedly indicated that if a reason for discharging an employee is given at the separation meeting, but a different reason is provided at trial, the question may become, “Were you lying then or are you lying now?” Be careful, but be honest.
- Practice. Have a mock meeting with someone who will ask questions that are likely to arise.
- Approach performance feedback with a problem-solving mentality. The goal should be to provide feedback and resources that will make the employee successful.
- Listen. Do not listen merely to respond, but rather to truly hear what the employee is saying.
5. Being Too Slow to Act
“Being too slow to act” means failing to address or confront issues, or putting your head in the sand and losing precious time hoping an issue will go away. Sometimes it means:
- Having an undue commitment to “sunk costs”—trying to recover an investment by holding onto it because you cannot accept that it is no longer working. Sunk costs mean focusing on past costs rather than future utility. Sunk costs involve backwards-looking decisions.
- These decisions are often:
- caused by a fear of wasting (resources, effort, or energy);
- a desire to prove that we are right (giving up on a sunk cost may seem to prove we made a mistake);
- a failure to anticipate the positive opportunities that might follow once we abandon a sunk cost;
- and being overly concerned about how others will view us if we give up a sunk cost.
True leadership will be not only about successes, but about your capacity to recover from setbacks.
- A bad hire;
- Having launched a new project or program, or having opened a new location.
How can these triggers cause conflict? A bad hire can change team dynamics (causing others to have to pick up the slack, making other team members resentful that the wrong person was hired, etc.) or potentially derail an employee’s career if he or she is put on an assignment that is a loser. (That team member will eventually object to the damage done to his or her career.)
Practices to Consider:
Recognize the need to act quickly and decisively (distinguish between a decision that is bad, versus a decision that is worse). You might have spent a great deal of political capital advocating for a decision and your instinct may be to continue to fight for that position, even after you know it’s the wrong one. If the need to change, retreat, retract is obvious, accept the loss and stop wasting even more time and resources.
- Identify the fix and implement a plan to execute the fix—quickly.
- Learn from the mistake. For example, if you made a bad hire and you realize it’s because you based your decision solely on “gut” and emotion (“I like this person …”), it’s time to create a more methodical and effective recruitment and hiring protocol for future hires. Or, go back to see how you made a particular decision (to launch a new product, for example) and see if you engaged in decision-making bias: Did you only look at evidence that supported your decision to move forward with the plan? How can you do better next time?
- For recruitment, it makes sense to hire employees who have the skills to do the specific job, but who also understand and are on board with larger issues. For example, it is a recipe for disaster to hire a person to work in a start-up company or operation who clearly needs lots of direction and structure. (Similarly, if your company is very structured, make sure an applicant knows this and can assess whether this environment is right for him or her.) It is also important to not only explain company values, but to make sure all hiring managers can provide applicants with an understanding of what the business does—and instill commitment and excitement from applicants about the business.
- Take responsibility for mistakes—others will respect you for it. Let go of ego and embrace discomfort when it comes to acknowledging and learning from mistakes.
Part two of this two-part series discusses the importance of training, the effective use of HR tools and technology, the role of investigations in resolving workplace conduct, and how to transform tensions into opportunities.
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