Getting to the root of problems means understanding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, including one’s own 
Originally published in:
Canadian HR Reporter

November 8, 2004

Dealing with office conflict is one of those management tasks with high risks, low rewards and seemingly no end in sight. Negative patterns can develop despite a manager’s best efforts. Standard approaches become ineffective, and breakthroughs are only temporary.
As a manager watches her office environment lapse back into negative behaviour, she may start to ponder more radical responses. She loses perspective, finds no one appreciates her efforts, and may let things build up until the situation explodes and someone is transferred, gets fired, or quits. The stress is unpleasant and the impact on the workplace can be profound.

How can workplaces deal with such situations in a more effective way? First, there is no one magic answer when people are involved. Everyone has their particular strengths and weaknesses when it comes to interacting with others. Each worker has a preferred approach to situations, based on training, experience, skills, emotional make-up and relationship with others.

Dealing with workplace conflict most effectively requires all involved to first assess their own skills and to look at where they consistently have difficulty or fail to live up to a desired workplace culture. This self-analysis can be a difficult task at the best of times; but it’s even more difficult when there’s no reward or encouragement for taking the time necessary to reflect on such issues, or when doing so is simply impossible because of the pace and volume of work.

However, take a moment to assess how much more time employees and managers would have if they could reduce the amount of conflict they regularly deal with at work. Some managers spend up to 30 per cent of their time dealing with situations of conflict among their reporting employees. This is time deflected from the resources of the organization, which reflects poorly on the manager and staff alike, and which requires additional resources in order for the organization to achieve its goals.

This assessment should persuade managers to be self-aware, comfortable with their strengths and weaknesses, and realistic about how both affect the workplace. As a result, they would be better able to manage weaknesses and minimize their impact. Knowing oneself allows a manager to model the expected behaviour for the workplace, to respond positively to challenges, and to maintain credibility with staff. The manager who screams and shouts arbitrarily when confronted with conflict cannot demand and expect calm responses and respect.

He may get calm responses superficially, but he is building a workplace of poor morale, high turnover, pervasive with disrespect and lacking in commitment.

Perfection is not the standard, of course. The standard is consistent honesty and therefore credibility. When managers make errors, they must acknowledge them, not in a way that excuses themselves to others, but in a way that seeks out the same standard for all and strives to hold everyone consistently to that standard. Errors should be reviewed and efforts made to avoid them in the future.

Managers may assess themselves through training, mentoring, self-study, and feedback. Self-assessment will be a continual task for managers as their careers progress. In addition, they must guide their staff through the same kind of self-assessment, all the while making the appropriate investment depending on each individual’s role and responsibilities in the organization, and on the particular strengths or weaknesses in relation to that role.
It’s from this work that a manager may discover the reasons behind a conflict instead of the bandage solutions to an immediate problem. The fuss about the photocopier not being refilled, for example, may turn out not about the photocopier, but about a feeling that someone in the office is a “free rider” while others are forced to pick up the slack. Once a manager can assess the accuracy of these perceptions, she can make the conflicts explicit, resolve them more thoroughly, and reduce their incidence.

A manager should also assess the chemistry of interactions, looking for the best mix of skills and personalities for the responsibilities of her workplace. She can help move those who do not, or cannot, fit well into roles better suited to their skills and assignments more in line with their personalities — whether within or outside the organization. The ideal departure is when a manager and a staff member come to the mutual conclusion that the employee will be more productive and happier somewhere else, and when the manager helps that staff member leave in a positive manner.

Of course, people have different levels of self-knowledge. Not all people will react well or effectively, despite good modeling. These people still require the honesty, consistency and credibility of treatment that will allow them to be as comfortable and productive as possible. Assessing their productivity is not simply a matter of how they do their jobs. Someone’s impact on workplace chemistry should be an explicit part of his job evaluation or a performance review, and the manager’s expectations should be made clear to them, as should the consequences of not meeting these expectations.

For a manager, this is difficult work, and often thankless. However, this is one of the most important roles for managers. Fulfilling it in the most effective manner possible will reduce their stress, achieve more for the organization, and over time reduce negativity and conflict in the workplace.