The potential for conflict in life is everywhere. In the workplace it can occur between supervisor and subordinate, between co-workers, between employees in different departments, with vendors or with customers. The good news is that while conflict wears many faces, it can be resolved by basic skills that can be learned and applied to all conflict situations, whether at home, at work, with friends or in the community. Learn the basic skills and you acquire a simple road map for resolving conflict.
Unless we have a road map for dealing with conflict, we try to avoid it or deal with it inadequately, like Sylvia, who was promoted to a supervisory position three months ago.
Sylvia had been working as a purchasing clerk and was so conscientious that she was promoted eight months after joining the company. She was a little apprehensive because this was her first supervisory position, and she wasn’t exactly sure what was required of her. She thought things were going fine until about a month ago when the person who was hired to fill her old position and one of her other subordinates started squabbling.
At first she ignored them. A few days later, she heard Janet say to Carolyn: “If you don’t stop talking about me behind my back, you’ll be sorry.”
Sylvia stepped in and said: “Stop behaving like children and get back to work.”
The next morning when she walked into the office she caught Janet and Carolyn talking about her. She got angry because she was being drawn into the office drama. She felt her subordinates didn’t respect her and she told them off.
Now she feels caught in the middle and doesn’t want to talk to her manager because she is afraid the company will fire her. Yet productivity is being affected by the conflict, and her manager will soon realize things are not going well.
Allowed to continue without intervention, this scenario could cost the company low employee morale, absenteeism, loss of efficiency and productivity, damage to company image, loss of customers, terminations requiring rehiring and the cost of legal actions that employees might take against the company.
This is a worst case scenario, yet all companies benefit by assessing the “bottom line” ramifications of not providing managers, supervisors and employees with the tools to resolve conflict. Training is often dismissed as a luxury and an unneeded expense rather than an important tool for increasing employee morale and productivity. In our competitive environment, companies cannot afford not to train supervisors and employees in conflict resolution techniques such as effective communication, active listening skills, negotiating and problem solving.
If Sylvia and her subordinates had learned such techniques, the above scenario would have played out very differently. They’d have known, for example, that people are more likely to be heard if they use “I” rather than “you” statements. “I” statements reveal what is going on with us, rather than attacking, criticizing, preaching, threatening, blaming, shaming or judging others.
“You” statements—such as, “If you don’t get it done today, you’ll be sorry”, or “You better get to work on time tomorrow”—are more likely to be heard and acted upon if begun with “I”: “I need to have this report done today so I can review it for my meeting tomorrow morning,” and “I feel frustrated when you come in late because it makes it hard for me to meet my deadlines”.
Using “I” statements both expresses how you feel and shows respect for those with whom you have a conflict.
Imagine the outcome of the scenario above if Janet had expressed her emotions and what she wanted by saying: “It really upsets me when I hear you have said something about me behind my back. I would appreciate it if you would tell me directly what is going on.”
As the supervisor, how could Sylvia have helped Janet and Carolyn resolve their dispute rather than getting involved herself?
As an impartial observer, actively listening to both sides of the dispute, Sylvia would gain their respect and discover what the underlying issues and interests were. Once the issues that need resolving were on the table, she could facilitate negotiation using problem-solving techniques, such as role playing and brainstorming to help them arrive at their own solution.
Successful negotiating allows both parties to move from previously fixed positions to a mutually agreeable settlement.
Since the agreements that Janet and Carolyn reach are their own, not forced upon them, they’re likely to be kept. In this situation, one of the agreements would probably be how they would communicate in the future when similar situations arise.
Sylvia, as mediator of this dispute, would have acted as a role model for her subordinates by demonstrating exceptional communication and listening skills. Listening with empathy and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, without judgment, blame and criticism, convey respect. Whether you agree or disagree, it says: “Your thoughts and feelings are important and so are you.”
As a supervisor, Sylvia will encounter and be expected to handle many different conflict situations. Her ability to handle them skillfully will depend on the training that she receives. Providing Sylvia, her manager, subordinates and other company employees with conflict resolution techniques will create happier and more productive employees, increase company morale, reduce absenteeism and turnover, and increase “bottom line”results.
By Beverley Hallett is the owner of Beverley Hallett & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in human resource management, training and mediation in Doty, Wa., just west of Chehalis, Wash.