Contributed Column

The Manager's Corner

by Emily Morrow

A bridge over troubled waters: conflict interventions in the workplace

Two of my favorite words come to mind in connection with workplace conflict interventions: “pernicious” (having a harmful effect in a gradual or subtle way) and “ubiquitous” (found everywhere). The ubiquitous part is likely a given considering human nature and life’s inherent stresses. The pernicious part is often optional depending on how conflict is approached. Is conflict natural, positive, and the result of a robustly diverse workforce, or is it negative, destructive, and to be avoided?

During this recession, I find employers responding to workplace conflict in new ways. In “flush” economic times, they frequently resolve conflicts by encouraging the affected employees to leave. Now, they are more likely to retain such employees if possible, and avoid the costs of severance pay, loss of productivity, and training that accompany turnover.

How can one best address workplace conflict? Let’s take a typical example. John and Tom are managers in the same department. Tom reports to John and John reports to the CEO. The conflict between them simmers along, erupting when they work together on a time-sensitive, stressful project.

Although everyone knows the conflict exists, John and Tom have never discussed it with one another. Instead, they frequently vilify the other to various third parties. This results in inefficiency, reduced work quality, and general misery for them and everyone with whom they interact — including their families. Physical symptoms often accompany the psychological stress.

I am often invited to intervene after a particularly visible and intense blow-up. Here’s what I do.

First, I have individual discussions with each employee. I remain neutral, listen actively, and ask factual questions. Next, I identify the work style and temperament differences between the feuding parties. When one complains to me about the other’s behavior, I encourage an examination of the complainer’s and how it might contribute to the conflict.

I suggest that one cannot change another’s behavior but can only change one’s own behavior, and that such a personal change can dramatically improve a relationship. This simple idea frequently presents as a refreshing, blinding glimpse of the obvious.

I then compile a fact-based list of work-style similarities and differences. The list may note points about each individual such as the tendency to be an extrovert or introvert, the preferred learning style (oral, written, or hands-on), whether the individual seeks closure or prefers opening new options, a tendency to focus on details or the big picture, and whether the approach is logical or more emotional.

The list is unique to each intervention and exhaustive. I then discuss the list in a neutral way with each party and ask each to verify its accuracy, correcting it where necessary.

At this point, the individuals often realize that neither of them is right or wrong, but that they have fundamental differences, many of which are attributable to basic temperamental predispositions. It’s not personal; it’s just the way it is.

After this realization, hostility and anxiety usually rapidly diminish in much the same way a balloon deflates when pricked with a sharp pin. As each individual gains greater personal insight, empathy and communication improve.

Finally, I meet with both parties together to discuss their work-style differences. We focus on better understanding the other, tailoring one’s own behavior to accommodate the other and avoid inadvertently creating future conflicts. I often suggest the individuals identify a project on which they can collaborate and practice their new behavioral patterns.

As they work together, I encourage them to discuss what is working, what is problematic, and how to fine-tune the interaction going forward, while I hold each personally accountable for the success of their efforts.

The results are typically dramatic and enduring. Although these individuals seldom become close personal friends, they usually discover their differences reflect complementary skills and that by collaborating, they produce a superior work product.

Indeed, the outcome is such that the whole ends up being greater than the prior sum of its parts. It’s worth the effort and it’s profitable. Think about it. •

Emily Morrow (www.emilymorrow.com) of Shelburne provides tailored consulting services to business owners, professional practice firms, executives, and HR personnel. She can be reached at pelmorrow@mac.com.

Index of Contributed Columns

For information on submitting a contributed column see here.