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.