Principles for Managing Workplace Conflict

Reflections on Workplace Perspective…..

The improper use of numbers is a metaphor for how we express our feelings.  If we are satisfied, we are likely to use numbers with positively and with integrity; if we are not content, we will likely find a way to use numbers to our own advantage.

The use of numerical information is a metaphor for how we express our feelings. If we are satisfied, we are likely to use numbers positively and with integrity; if we are not content, we will find a way to distort these numbers to serve our own advantage.

On this Friday Five (Craig’s Top Five List”), I am addressing the issue of workplace conflict from what you might consider a strange perspective — talking about statistics.  You see, the way we use numbers is a reflection of how we feel about an issue, our bosses, our governments.  So numbers can be revealing indicators about how we as a team or an organization are getting along.

Please note that I am not espousing conflict avoidance, since some healthy conflict is useful; however, proper management of your working relationships will minimize the unhealthy type of conflict and the black hole of wasted time that it attracts.

When there is no hard scientific information available, decision-makers fall back upon their intuition about a particular issue — they speak from what they feel. “I think this is a problem” a client might suggest, or  “this needs to be fixed”.  Without solid information, agreement is difficult to achieve and conflict bubbles just below the surface waiting for its opportunity to explode into existence; participants display anger, frustration, indifference and intolerance, and then sadly trust and cooperation crumble.  The integrity of the relationship has been breached; and once it has reached this stage it will be difficult to restore.

Eons ago, it seems, my organization recognized the dilemma of building client support and opted to take the scientific approach with large data bases, multiple lines of evidence and heavy hitting research methods.  Having this information in hand, developed by a multi-disciplinary advisory team, paid huge dividends since there was less wiggle room for “I think” argumentation.  It was also strangely comforting for all parties, since what they thought was a problem usually wasn’t or was a minor challenge which could be easily addressed with less money.

Of course, the presence of hard data is not always a panacea.  There is still another layer of organization building to be addressed.  Organizations with whom you deal must feel they are part of the team, they must feel consulted, they must be important to your process — specifically, you must build the underpinning of this relationship.  If you have not built goodwill with your client groups, your opponents will find ways to “reinterpret” data to serve their own agenda. My statistics professor back in my graduate studies days tried to familiarize his students with the challenge of numbers by exposing us to a little reference text called How to Lie with Statistics.  This little book uses a tongue in cheek writing style to impress us with how people use numbers to make their points, defend their positions.

Michael Blastland in his article of April 2, 2009, describes how numbers have recently had “the mother of makeovers”. First, he comments on the fact that numbers are everywhere and in every domain to the point that they are numbing and ambiguous.  Second, he notes that numbers are overstated — what was once just a fact has evolved into the “cold fact” and then onto the “killer fact”. Finally, he observes that those who use numbers regularly use them carelessly, either because they do not understand the power of the numbers or their source.  He says that numbers have lost their capacity to be a “counterweight for emotion”.  Hence the premise I am espousing today.

Even with what we know are powerful numbers, our clients and employees are quickly recognizing that numbers have lost their luster and that unfounded rhetoric and the misuse of numbers is just as powerful.

And there are many examples of how challenging it is to address conflict in this world of cleverly choreographed ambiguity. The facts no longer define who wins. In many ways these folks would argue “it is not about what is right; it is simply about winning or, God forbid, losing”.

This new mentality of rational irrationality also occurs in the workplace.  Imagine the new employee who joins an organization full of enthusiasm and excitement — “I can’t wait to get my teeth into this job, I am looking forward to working with a team”, is the refrain as they prepare to be the best and make the greatest contribution to your bottom line. How does this commitment wane and reach the point where they are totally alienated from the organization and can only envision revenge?  This type of isolation is costly for both the organization and the employee; and yes, should be avoided at all costs.

The premise that I am suggesting: to preempt the challenge of numerical quicksand — that is, irrational and destructive workplace conflict — build solid, constructive, team-oriented emotion.

So here is are five suggestions on how a manager can nurture team oriented emotion:

  1. Be humble: This theme keep coming up in my posts. If an employee can see only a wall of arrogance and presumed perfection coming from the manager’s office, this will do little to build trust and openness.  On the other hand, the employee who knows that their manager admits areas of weakness and finds strength in others will be willing to participate in efforts to strengthen team capacity.
  2. Use team strengths in a complementary manner: Use team skills in the most efficient manner.  This may also mean that an employee takes on a role previously assumed to be a managerial role.  For example, planning has traditionally been the bastion of the manager.  But, you may have a challenge planning, executing and recording activities.  So, find an employee with this strength and allow them to assume this role; under your supervision, of course, since it is still critical that the manager have full knowledge of activities in his area of responsibility.
  3. Position yourself to know how your staff are feeling: When things are going poorly, you can be sure your staff are talking about it.  You can also be quite certain that the manager will be the last to know. “I had no idea my staff were so miserable” he lamented, “and that it would take so little action to repair”.  It is important to have a strategy to unearth the decaying working relationship.  It helps if one of your employees, in the interests of both manager and employees,  will approach the manager about this simmering powder keg.  It is also useful for the manager to promote communication and a relaxed working environment by holding regular “how is it going meetings” over a pot of hot coffee and a few donuts.
  4. Genuinely show your staff that you have a heart: When I first started work, managers isolated and insulated themselves from their employees.  The theory was that managers should have a mystique of power about them.  They were better than their employees and nothing should allow this veneer to be penetrated.  I would argue that genuine behaviour builds membership.  Be willing to speak with your staff about issues they are facing and to share your challenges as well.  You will undoubtedly find some common thread.
  5. Show that you are objective and impartial: Organizations regularly conduct audits of delivery systems and accounting practices.  Organizations rarely conduct audits of management practices.  There are anonymous methods that allow employees to comment without fear of reprisal.  They permit and encourage employees to share thoughts on what is going well in the workplace and what needs improvement.  This is a handy tool — if repeated every two years, managers can preempt many workplace problems by making adjustments in concert with the team of employees.

That’s it for this Friday.  I would love to get your thoughts.  This list is not exhaustive so feel free to provide additional ideas.

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