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(Steve Jacobs/iStockphoto)
(Steve Jacobs/iStockphoto)

When employee conflict gets in the way of doing business Add to ...

Look around any company and you'll likely see them - the incompetent, the ladder climber, the ego monster, even the bully. From offices to stores to factory floors, every character type can be spotted, each with their own view of how the world should operate. No wonder the workplace can be a hotbed for personality conflicts.

And conflicts abound. In fact, senior managers spend on average 16 per cent of their time - more than six hours a week, or eight weeks a year - intervening in employee disputes, according to a recent Accountemps survey of 300 managers at Canadian companies with 20 or more employees.

"Although managing staff is part of the job, too much time spent handling employee conflict gets in the way of doing business," said Marilynn Balfour, director of outsourced human resources at Bowen Workforce Solutions, a Calgary-based consulting firm.

Disputes between co-workers don't only affect the warring parties. Such conflict can also undermine overall employee morale and productivity, Ms. Balfour said. And many disputes escalate to the point where workers fail to show up for work, or even leave the job.

According to a 2009 study by Edmonton-based Psychometrics Canada, for example, more than 80 per cent of HR professionals said conflict had led to someone leaving their organization, while more than three-quarters said it had resulted in sickness or absence.

So what do workers fight about? About 85 per cent of conflicts stemmed from egos and personality clashes, the Psychometrics study found. About 75 per cent stemmed from poor leadership and about 70 per cent from lack of honesty. Two-thirds of the fights were linked to stress, the study found.

"We typically see three main sources of disputes: personality differences, workplace environment and poor communication," Ms. Balfour said.

Friction points include how people speak - or don't speak - to each other, how information is shared, territorial disputes, and differences in values, culture and work styles, she noted.

"Whenever you have change or insecurity, you see the dark side come out," Ms. Balfour said. "When things are going well, people tend to be able to better deal with situations; when they're stressed they are less able to do that."

Such employee discontent can manifest itself in a range of behaviours - from sharp retorts, bickering and shouting matches to the big freeze-out, in which co-workers simply won't speak to each other. Territorial disputes, for example, often result in uncommunicative employees withholding information from each other and operating in silos, Ms. Balfour said.

Then there's the passive/aggressive behaviour, she added, in which people are nice to your face, but behind your back the daggers come out.

Mike Gooley, regional vice-president of Accountemps in Toronto, said e-mail has become a major source of conflict among workers. Messes are "often misinterpreted because you can't measure the tone or facial expressions of the sender," he noted. Before you know it, a simple exchange has spiralled into a full-blown argument.

If managers and supervisors are spending a disproportionate amount of their time mediating employee disputes it could also be a signal that a larger issue needs to be addressed, Mr. Gooley said. Companies with an overly competitive environment or those that are chronically short-staffed may experience more fractious behaviour, he added.

Often, the problem isn't necessarily the conflict itself, but how it's dealt with, Ms. Balfour said, noting that many managers lack the interpersonal skills, experience and training to effectively mediate disputes between others. That isn't surprising given that many managers, in many types of organizations, are moved into supervisory positions with little specific training in how to handle staff and personnel matters.

To fend off conflicts before they begin, workplace experts advise that managers take specific steps to reduce friction and foster harmony:

Develop a code of conduct

Invite your staff to contribute their own rules and expectations for behaviour in the office, advises Daphne Woolf, senior vice-president of Aon Hewitt in Toronto. If workers are involved in setting the guidelines for appropriate behaviour, they'll be more apt to comply, and that may help to head of conflict before it starts, she said.

As important as it is for managers to know how to handle conflicts, it is also crucial that employees have a process to follow if they become involved in a dispute with a co-worker. Everyone should know what the rules of engagement are for addressing conflict within the company, Ms. Balfour said.

Clearly outline roles and responsibilities

"Often what happens is, one employee does A, B and C, while another does C, D and E. There's overlap and it becomes a question of turf protection," Ms. Woolf said. Spelling out each person's role - and making sure everyone knows who does what - can reduce friction before it starts.

Be a role model

The Psychometrics Canada study found that 84 per cent of HR professionals said managers can play a key role in influencing how employees will handle disagreements by being a model of appropriate behaviour (for example, remaining calm and respectful during a tense conversation). Managers should also reward employees who contribute to a supportive workplace, Mr. Gooley said. Such recognition signals that how your staff members interact is as important as their job performance

Intervene early and fairly

"You can't let disputes fester - you have to deal with them," said Mark Fitzsimmons, president of Psychometrics Canada. If a manager doesn't deal with a person's disruptive actions, it sends a message to other staff that such behaviour is okay, he said. Managers should work with the feuding employees to identify the reasons for their dispute and find a way to resolve it, and then come up with ways to handle future disagreements.

Invest in manager training

Many managers simply don't have the interpersonal skills to deal with employee conflict, Ms. Balfour said. But with specific training, supervisors can develop effective techniques to manage interpersonal conflicts, and help establish a collegial atmosphere for their staff.

Know your staff

If one or two individuals are involved in ongoing disputes or conflicts, it may be time for their manager to take a closer look, Mr. Fitzsimmons said. Because the real source of conflict can often be hidden, it's important that managers get to know their staff. For example, an employee may be under stress because of family problems, which is leading to disruptive behaviour at work. That sort of background knowledge can help a manager determine how best to settle the conflict in the workplace.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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