Can’t We All Just Get Along?
by Tara Weiss
By the time a company calls Kenneth Cloke in, things have gotten bad, very bad. A workplace conflict mediator, Cloke teaches irate managers to contain themselves, brings feuding office factions together and, ideally, restores a sense of harmony around the office.
Conflict may be inevitable, but a happy office is always a more productive office. Think about it: If employees are stewing over something a co-worker did or about the promotion they didn’t get, chances are they’re not getting their work accomplished–at least not well. Rather than dealing with more revenue-producing matters, managers report they’re spending 30% of their time dealing with conflict, according to John Ford, founder of John Ford & Associates, a workplace conflict management firm in California. Resolving those issues quickly saves time and money and boosts employee retention rates.
“It’s a huge savings from a company’s standpoint,” says Cloke, director of the Center for Dispute Resolution in Santa Monica, Calif., who has worked with Xerox, MTV and Wells Fargo. “People take sick leave when they’re upset at their boss.”
They’re also more likely to make errors and work slowly. In high-conflict climates, 50% of employees say they get less done while fuming, 46% thought about quitting and 37% became less committed to their work.
Using a few basic techniques, managers can easily alleviate tension before it escalates into an office edition of WWF Smackdown! One point of workplace tension is the generation gap. Many senior managers are not accustomed to the collaborative style younger generations use. “Younger generations don’t agree with the fact that you should respect a person just because they have a higher position,” says Cloke. The idea that a manager should be everything to everyone just doesn’t make any sense. Until all workplaces shift to that, there will be chronic conflict.”
To alleviate that tension, both sides must talk. Start a conversation by stating how much you appreciate the working relationship. “Lay down your sword,” says Anna Maravelas, author of How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress . Then state the facts. If you’ve noticed a pattern of behavior that’s not productive, say that. But stay away from the phrases “you never” or “you always.”
From there, work collaboratively to get to the bottom of the situation by saying something like, “Can you help me understand what’s going on?” Once there’s a better understanding of the situation, ask for what you need. Supervisors can list the things they need for the future.
Cloke also recommends videotaping a meeting so participants see how they react to suggestions and requests. Then discuss what you see. Cloke once worked with a manager who vehemently denied that he yells to employees. When he watched the tape, he saw himself yelling the phrase “I don’t yell at my employees.” The tape was an eye-opener for him.
It also helps to know whom and what you’re dealing with, says Cloke, who suggests having each member of a team–the manager included–take the Myers-Briggs personality-type test. That way co-workers learn that everyone communicates differently. Discuss the results and what they mean. It’s a good way for each employee to see that the others–especially the manager–aren’t disagreeing with ideas just to be difficult.
There are times when co-worker conflicts really are personal. In those cases, managers should prevent co-workers from tattling on each other. To combat that, interrupt the complainer and call the other person into your office to listen to both sides while both are present. It’s disarming and forces both workers to be truthful.
Another tool for diffusing tension: validation. When a disgruntled employee comes to you because he or she didn’t get a promotion that was applied for, most manager say something to the effect of “Don’t feel bad, you’ll get another opportunity.”
But that’s exactly what not to say,” says Ford. Instead, tell your employee that you understand he or she is disappointed. Then assure the person that you’re both going to figure out how he or she can achieve professional goals. Find out what the employee’s needs are by asking, “What are your goals at the company, and how can we help you get there?”