QUESTION: We have an employee that supports several of our staff and her communication style and approach can sometimes be abrasive. As a result, her co-workers either avoid interaction all together or they disagree, sometimes by arguing in the office. Neither of these responses are productive and are negatively impacting employees, and more concerning, are starting to be visible to our customers. Despite these concerns, this employee is very organized and keeps our office running efficiently. How can we address the uncomfortable conflict and build a more collaborative working environment?
ANSWER: Overall, conflict is normal, and when handled well, can lead to a stronger, more collaborative and innovative work place. When not handled well, it can lead to tense working environments, negative impacts on customers, and, over time, low employee morale and turnover. While conflict is a normal occurrence anytime two or more people work together, external stress can exacerbate it, so it is important to understand the potential causes of the conflict as you work toward a solution.
The first step is to recognize that the conflict must be addressed. So many people avoid conflict and hope it will go away. If the employees are not working it out on their own, it is time to step in to help support all involved. Use the steps below to help guide your conversations.
- Talk with those involved in the conflict. The conflict may have come to your attention from one of the employees directly involved or an observer. The first step is to gather information in a non-judgmental and objective manner. Talk with each person individually, seeking to understand their perspective.
- Once you understand more about what is causing the conflict(s), you can identify themes. These may be related to individuals (e.g., Employee A is very inflexible on how they like things done, Employee B is always late in submitting their documentation which impacts other timelines in the process, etc.) or processes that are creating stress for employees (e.g., computer systems not working well, timelines are difficult to meet, paperwork too burdensome, etc.). Your next steps will depend on what themes you uncover.
- If issues seem to lie with individual employees, meet with them individually to share the concerns, talk about the impact their behavior/actions are having on others, and ask for their perspective on causes. The conversation may go something like this – “Mary, you do a great job of making sure that all paperwork is submitted on time and billings are completed. However, I’ve noticed that your tone and word choice can come across as rude. (If you have a specific, recent example you can share it here.) When you speak to coworkers that way, it puts them on the defensive and creates tension in the office. I’ve also noticed that it’s happened in front of customers, which is unacceptable. Are you aware of these interactions? Help me understand what might be happening?”
- After summarizing the issue and asking questions to understand more, pause. This can be challenging because many of us are uncomfortable with conflict ourselves and we just keep talking or want to “sugarcoat” the issue and make the person feel better. Instead, pause, wait for the person to respond, and stay calm if the person becomes agitated. Once you understand where the issue(s) lies, you can move to developing solutions. A question might be, “Given what we’ve discussed related to this issue, what might be some solutions?”
- End the meeting by summarizing the solutions identified (even if they all came from you), your expectations for future behavior, and potential consequences if the employee fails to make immediate and sustained change.
Building a strong organization culture impacts employee and customer satisfaction, efficiency of operations, and ultimately the company’s bottom line. Therefore, building a culture where you address issues openly, respectfully, and confidentially (when needed) is key for building a strong culture over time.