Managing Employee Conflict

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PAS-It-On Vol 11 Issue 2

Conflict at work  is  inevitable.  Employee personality clashes, strong  differences  of  opinion,  and  personal concerns  spilling  over  into  the  workplace  are  major sources  of  employee  stress,  job  dissatisfaction  and productivity loss.

In the workplace, most conflicts begin from a place of trying to protect personal and/or work group resources.  A posturing of strength occurs  between  opposing parties as they seek to defend or demand that which they  think  should  be  theirs—honor,  respect,  wages, benefits, access to equipment, etc.

How Conflict Happens

Remember that disagreements occur because of a trigger; they do not happen out of the blue.    There    may be    tensions    simmering under the surface that are not readily observable.  At the point that either a  person or group  experience frustration and perceive a threat to what they believe should  be  theirs,  one  or  both  parties  become  angry and act out.

If the underlying tensions are not directly addressed, the cycle will repeat itself. Another trigger will present itself; frustrations with  the  opposing  side  escalate  to the  point  that  another  round  of  anger  and  acting  out occur.

The Manager’s Role

Managing  employee  conflict  effectively  requires  that all parties in any conflict come to recognize that each side  has  valid  needs.  Resolution is  not  achieved  by identifying whose needs are more important; resolution can only occur when the parties in conflict under- stand that both party’s needs are valid. The manager’s role is to facilitate a constructive resolution to conflicting needs:

Talk to each employees separately and in private.

Research the situation so you have a comprehensive understanding of the precipitating events as well as the motivation of each employee in order to make everyone feel heard and respected:

Ask each employee:

  • WHY did the other employee express anger toward you? What did they do to demonstrate their anger?
  • HOW did you respond to their anger? What did you do? How did you feel?
  • Ask clarifying, paraphrasing and open-ended questions such as what it would take for someone else to calm them down in the same situation.

Meet with the employees together to facilitate an understanding of the events as objectively as possible.

  • Acknowledge each party’s point of view.
  • Show respect and empathy by acknowledging their frustration.
  • Get them to Yes! The more often you can get the other person to say yes, the quicker the conflict will de-escalate!  This is an extremely successful  technique.  For example, “So  you  are  feeling  frustrated because  of XYZ, do I  have that right?” “We seem to have different ideas about XYZ, do you  agree?”

Find an agreeable resolution, or if this is not possible, inform the  employees  of  the  decision  on  the  matter based on company policy. Teach your employees  the  fundamentals  of  de-esca- lation. Coach  your employees  on  how  to  de-escalate  a situation should it arise.  Tell them that the cycle of feeling threatened,  getting  angry,  and  acting  aggressively can be interrupted and stopped.

Remember that disagreements occur because of a trigger; they do not happen out of the blue.

Tips for De-escalation

De-escalation starts with  how  a  provoked  employee or group reacts. Remind employees that they are the only ones in control of how they respond:

  • Think positively, be positive. Tell yourself, “I can do this”.

De-escalate yourself  first.  Take a deep breath, or more if necessary.

  • Recognize that the other party is “venting”.
  • Don’t take the bait – choose to de-escalate the situation instead.
  • Slow down, relax your body, pay attention  to  your body language, speak calmly, and actively listen.
  • Manage yourself — be patient, put your own ego on hold.

Language is key to interrupting the anger escalation cycle:

  • Watch your language – don’t make judgments or accusations or throw “zingers” that focus on the other person’s flaws. Avoid saying things like, “Calm down, you’re too emotional” or “You’re just being a….”
  • Don’t try to prove the other person wrong.
  • Separate the problem from the people involved.
  • Use tentative language that indicates openness  to other  perspectives: “Perhaps…” “I wonder…” ”What if…?”
  • You can only influence the future, not  the  past: “I am…” focuses on the present and what you want in the future. “You always…” focuses on what the other party has done in the past.
  • Use unifying language: “How can we work together to make things better?”

Remain Observant to Warning Signs. In spite of best efforts, not everyone is going to de-escalate their anger. In a heated situation, pay attention to these strong indicators of potential aggression:

  • A person clenching their fists, tightening their jaw
  • A sudden change  in  body  language  or  tone  during conversation
  • The person starts pacing or fidgeting
  • A change in the type or quality of eye contact
  • Intimidating stance: chest protruding forward, arms away from body

Tell your employees that if they see these warning signs then it is time to take a “Time Out”. Timeouts can be a helpful method of preventing a situation from escalating to aggression.  NOTE!  This is not about avoiding conflict, but rather preventing aggression. A “timeout” allows the parties to clear heads, clarify intentions and foster better communication in a calm manner.

How to Take a Timeout

  • Remove yourself physically to another location momentarily. This is not with the intent to punish but rather, to allow a more positive and proactive inter- action.
  • Select a time out signal – perhaps the universal sign for “I need time”.
  • Watch for signs that you are losing control of your emotions. Is your voice rising? Is your blood  pressure  rising? Are you starting to sweat? These are all telltale signs that things are about to spin out of control. Watch for the signs   in   yourself…   and   in others.
  • A timeout is a break in  the action. If a timeout is called, set a time  to  regroup.  This avoids   conveniently “forgetting” to address   the conflict and assures the other  party  that  you  are not avoiding them—just taking time to collect your thoughts. Say, “Please excuse me for a bit. I need to take a break and regroup my thoughts. Can we pick this back up at break time?”
  • Regroup and redirect. Just like in sports games, timeouts are utilized to shift momentum. It can give both parties a chance to calm down, and oftentimes things that were critical a few moments ago all of a sudden don’t seem quite so important

Did You Know?

PAS is available for consultation  on  workgroup  conflict management. Organizational, forensic and clinical psychologists provide unparalleled support in helping to resolve unproductive group dynamics. You may also consider the benefits of referring  employees  to  PAS who are having difficulty with conflict at work.

 

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