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My work gives me a front-row seat on many different kinds of conflict. All too often, I'm called in for the aftermath of a conflict, when opportunities for a quick resolution are long past, positions are entrenched and everyday banalities have taken on outsize significance. If managers can recognize signs of conflict earlier and respond to them appropriately, they will have the gratitude of their employees and also know that they are protecting their bottom line.
Here are some of the things I have learned from my work in civil mediation (working with parties who would otherwise be in court) and as a workplace mediator.
Workplace conflict is excruciating; address it promptly
I have seen people leave well-paid jobs because of bad relationships in the workplace. Clients have told me how the dread of facing another workday with an abrasive colleague or manager makes them feel physically ill. If the stress becomes too much, people will do everything possible to transfer out and, failing that, they will leave an organization.
If employees are preoccupied with workplace conflict, they cannot do their best work. Make workplace relationships a high priority if you want to keep your employees and get the best from them.
People can have radically different interpretations of the same events, and perception is reality
What seems to one person like a harmless joke can appear to be a calculated act of disrespect to another. An event that one person has seared into memory as a humiliating and demeaning incident will be barely remembered by others.
While there is a time and a place to investigate the truth of events, a formal investigation is not always the answer. For mediators, the goal is not to uncover the truth about what happened; rather, the point is to help the people involved communicate and understand the impact that events have had on one another. Behaviour in the workplace can be hurtful and damaging to relationships even if it doesn't rise to the level of a formal harassment complaint. If that is the case, then you have to pay attention to individuals' interpretations of events, rather than trying to get to the bottom of what really happened.
People may have no idea of the effect they're having on others
The boss whose stinging criticisms and abrupt demands make employees avoid him whenever possible? He thinks he cares about excellence and doing the best for the customer. He doesn't realize that he's driving away talented people. The office manager whose eye-rolling and sarcastic tone has made her the least-loved person in the office? She wonders why she isn't included more often in group lunches and Friday-afternoon drinks.
You may think, "Of course they know. How could anyone possibly be unaware?" Yet I have found, over and over, that people engaged in such dysfunctional patterns have surprisingly little insight into the effect that their actions have on others. They truly don't get it. Making them aware of these effects is usually the first step in helping them change.
People can change. But it is hard, and they need support
Managers can make the mistake of thinking that the only alternative to putting up with an abrasive person is to fire him or her. Both options are costly: the first has hidden costs of workplace tension and eventual attrition of other employees. The second has the more direct costs of finding and training a replacement.
Another option is to keep abrasive employees but make them aware of the effect that their behaviour has on others and insist that they take steps to change. Coaching can help people to learn more-appropriate and effective ways to behave in the workplace. I have seen that such change is possible. But it won't happen overnight and it won't happen without effort and patience.
Reasons alone – even good reasons – do not motivate
The philosopher David Hume once said that reason was and ought to be only the "slave" of the passions. He was talking about moral psychology, but the point holds true for many forms of motivation. In my civil mediation practice, I've seen that rational and economic arguments are not enough to make someone agree to or reject a settlement offer. People must also feel good about their decisions. If they feel that they haven't been treated with dignity and respect, they are likely to reject an offer, even if doing so leaves them worse off than before. As a workplace mediator, I've seen that rational arguments alone are unlikely to motivate change. An effective manager will draw on both reason and emotion to influence others.
Jeanette Bicknell (@JeanetteBicknel), PhD., Q. Med., is the owner of Principled Dispute Resolution & Consulting. She helps individuals and organizations to work through conflict and come out better than before.