Negotiating conflict with employees

March 20, 2017

Conflicts are an inevitable part of business, yet many managers avoid dealing with them hoping the problem will just go away on its own. This is a mistake. When not dealt with immediately, conflict can fester and become much worse. It’s better to facilitate a constructive conversation between employees and meet conflict head on. After all, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing—diversity of opinions and perspectives often reveal ways to strengthen the team and improve business. Teaching your team to deal with differences constructively can make your workplace more dynamic and innovative. Here are three types of conflict in the workplace and some communication techniques to help work through it constructively.

Owner-Employee Conflict

Emotions can run high when employees and bosses don’t agree, especially if the employee is concerned about losing their job. If this is a minor conflict, begin the conversation by reassuring the employee that you’re sure you’ll find a way to resolve the issue and that you value them as an employee. This will help reduce anxiety and focus the conversation on fixing the problem.

Review the situation as you understand it using neutral language and ask for confirmation that the facts are correct: “So if I understand it correctly the reason this keeps happening is you have trouble remembering all the steps in cleaning the bathrooms. Do I have that right?”

Let the employee clarify the situation from their perspective and then ask: “What can we do to help make sure this doesn’t happen again?” It’s important that the employee participates in coming up with the solution, but if they struggle it’s also OK to suggest a solution such as a procedure checklist, additional training, or an employee mentor. Once you agree on a solution, wrap up the meeting by asking the employee to commit to solving the issue and suggest a time to follow up together to see how the new process is working.

Employee-Employee Conflict

If the conflict occurs in front of customers, separate the employees and let them know you’ll set up a meeting to discuss it later. When you meet, share how much you appreciate their work and acknowledge that while you recently have encountered a stressful or frustrating event, overall the team works well together.

Then give each employee the opportunity to describe what happened. Make sure employees stay focused on the current event, and that they don’t start using language such as “she always” or “he never.” (If an employee has a habitual issue, that should be addressed in a one-on-one performance management meeting, not in a conflict resolution meeting.)

Once they are done, restate the problem as a process problem, not a people problem, and focus the employees on coming up with a resolution together. Here are some sample questions to focus the conversation:

  • Is there an adjustment we can make to our process that will prevent this from happening in the future?
  • How can we communicate better when things go awry so that we don’t let it escalate to this point?
  • If we all agree to handle it this way, do we think that will fix the problem?

End the conversation by getting the employees to commit to taking action. Ask: “Can I count on both of you to work together to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
Once employees have agreed, let them know you will be following up with them one-on-one to make sure things have truly been resolved.

Conflict Resulting from Disengaged or Clueless Employees

Conflict with part-time or inexperienced employees often stem from misunderstandings about expectations and responsibilities. Part-time employees may have never been in the workforce before, may be completely new to your business, or may not be fully engaged in the job because it’s just something they do on the side. In these cases, it’s especially important to set expectations and job responsibilities as soon as possible to avoid tension and conflict. Ideally this is done during the onboarding period, but can be done later if employees are not meeting your expectations.

Pull the employee aside and say there are some improvements you’re hoping to make to the business and that you’re hoping they can help you. Start by talking about the values and culture you’d like to nurture. Perhaps you’d like to focus on creating an environment of respect for each other, providing exceptional customer service, or fostering a particular ambiance in your shop. Then discuss how their specific duties contribute to that experience. Clearly define the behaviors you expect from them. Make it clear how their work will be evaluated, and ask for suggestions on how to make the shop even better. When closing the meeting, ask for their commitment to making the changes you discussed. Follow up discussions like this with regular performance management meetings. (Check out this blog on tracking employee performance.)

Conflict doesn’t have to be dramatic and painful. Create a culture and work environment where employees are comfortable talking about frustrations before they become a serious conflict. Help them frame the conversation so that it is focused on making improvements for the future, not on what went wrong in the past.

[image: Bartender by Vincent Diamante on flickr]

For more advice on managing difficult situations check out our Business Problem Turnaround series.

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