by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Conflict is a natural part of organizational life. Yet, leaders often struggle to timely respond to conflict situations until they escalate and it becomes too late to restore matters to the level of order and cooperation that was present before conflict arose. The typical reaction in these circumstances is to resort to formal processes to address conflicts, such as the organization’s internal discipline process. Then, when employees believe they have been wrongfully disciplined or discharged, organizations find themselves defending their actions in response to internal grievance processes or external actions such as lawsuits or complaints to EEOC or other state or federal agencies.
While defending against employee complaints is necessary at times, this reactive cycle will continue if the organization does not afford opportunities for employees to work through their conflict situations before resorting to more formal processes becomes necessary. Leaders should evaluate their organization’s effectiveness with early intervention and resolution of conflict in three areas:
Maintaining a conflict-minimal work environment. A “conflict minimal” environment is desired over “conflict free” because healthy organizations welcome appropriately managed conflict that is the natural consequence of motivated, creative individuals working through disagreements and tensions to achieve the best possible collective outcomes. Conflict becomes unhealthy when the focus shifts from exploring parties’ mutual interests to interactions that are disrespectful, personally hurtful, and harmful to relationships, team efforts, or other important workplace expectations.
Everything we know about creating motivating, engaged work environments applies to efforts to ensure a conflict-minimal environment. Do employees experience daily an environment where respect and collegiality are maintained and offensive, harassing, and bullying behaviors are not tolerated? Do managers seek to facilitate employee success by ensuring they have appropriate resources to perform their jobs and are free from the arbitrary policy and management constraints that characterize traditional “command and control” mindsets? Do performance management practices provide for open feedback, performance and developmental coaching, and supportive correction rather than punitive action when mistakes are made? Do leaders reinforce positive workplace values through behaviors and actions that are congruent with these values?
Leaders make great strides to minimize the presence of unhealthy conflict simply by removing the barriers, arbitrary rules, and hindrances that cause employees to “bump” into one another as they navigate unnatural work settings that keep them from doing their best work.
Building manager and employee capacity to address conflict. Employees are hired and remain employed because they possess skills and competencies based on specific job requirements. They are generally not hired or evaluated based on mastery of so-called “soft” skills such as the ability to get along with others. Without such skills, however, employees who encounter conflict are either left to flounder or encouraged to work with their managers or institutional conflict “specialists,” such as employee relations representatives, equity officers, or ombudsman. Floundering is not a helpful option, but neither is sole reliance on the manager or conflict specialist, especially if their intervention is presented as the only available option. A message of dependency is sent when employees are not encouraged at some level to work through their conflict situations, whenever feasible. Managers perpetuate this message if they lack skills to help employees manage their conflict situations.
Leaders must support employees’ efforts to acquire skills to manage conflict situations on their own as a matter of first resort. As employees themselves, leaders and managers must receive development support to manage employee conflict more effectively. When employees present behavioral or performance problems, managers must develop skills in delivering unwelcome news in a firm but supportive manner that minimizes employee defensiveness and offers opportunities for correction without unwarranted punitive action. When employees become reactive or accusatory, managers must know how to respond in a manner that is proactive, non-judgmental, and emotionally intelligent. They must also become adept at coaching employees through conflict situations, helping them strategize approaches to address their conflicts with co-workers, students, faculty, administrators, and others rather than always intervening on their behalf or referring them elsewhere.
For the workforce generally, the organization should seek to provide opportunities for employees to develop essential conflict resolution skills in, among others, listening, assertiveness, collaboration, interest-based negotiation, diplomacy, handling difficult conversations, and developing emotional intelligence. Leaders should also examine the organization’s policies and practices for addressing employee conflicts. Does it reinforce knee-jerk dependency on intervention by managers or conflict specialists or does it convey an expectation of ownership and responsibility among employees, teams, and work units to manage their conflict situations while providing avenues for support when needed.
Providing informal, non-legalistic third-party support. As much as employees should be encouraged to manage their conflicts, organizations should be prepared to provide third-party support through well-trained conflict specialists when needed. Conflict specialists include, among others, organizational representatives who have skills in mediating disputes, facilitating team dialogue and collaborative processes, coaching and counseling employees to help them work through disputes, and supporting leaders and groups in the assessment, design, and implementation of processes that better address systemic conflict.
When developing such capability, leaders should focus on processes that facilitate improved communication and workplace relationships and not simply transactional outcomes. Such processes should do more than address surface issues that resolve, if at all, solely in behaviorally-based outcomes. Better processes explore underlying causes that, if addressed, may lead to more lasting resolutions where parties are reconciled. Developing organizational capability to provide true conflict resolution assistance will minimize use of traditional formal processes as the sole means of “help” and improve employee satisfaction in pursuing such support so that resort to formal processes – whether internal or external – becomes unnecessary.