Conflict isn’t necessarily unhealthy– it sometimes arises because staff are trying to improve their respective functions– but it needs to be managed. For obvious reasons, that job falls to the manager.
Any conflict, however understandable, can’t be allowed to interfere with operations, or to otherwise disrupt the daily life of the workplace (as with arguing, or resentful silences). That’s particularly essential in a healing environment. Unhealthy conflict among staff can ‘bleed’ over into patient care, and that’s never good.
Let’s define healthy conflict as disagreement or dispute that leads to improved decision-making. Unhealthy conflict occurs when things turn personal and begin to interfere with the mission of the organization.
In practice, a manager has several paths to follow in dealing with unhealthy conflict. S/he can:
- Step in and order it to stop. The first option that occurs to most of us– unfortunately, it’s unlikely to succeed. More often, such ‘top down’ solutions aggravate animosity, or drive the conflict underground, where it festers in the dark. On the rare occasions when such mandates do work, the manager is encouraged to use the same approach in future situations, where it’s almost guaranteed to make things worse.
- Mediate. This is the path generally recommended by most experts, but it’s not that simple to follow. Mediation isn’t just a serious talk. It’s a form of negotiation that aims to resolve conflicts in a way that’s at least acceptable to all concerned. We’re not trying to make new friends. Our goal is to restore optimal function to the operation. And that takes some skill.
- Punish someone, using the disciplinary process. An approach favored by many, particularly if the first option has already proved unsuccessful. It’s one reason why HR is so unpopular with employees in some companies– managers have unwisely attempted to use the disciplinary process to punish someone they’re unhappy with. That is not what HR is for, and this should be obvious to anyone reading up on recent cases where improper actions have resulted in legal decisions unfavorable to the employer.
Frankly, mediation is the only genuinely useful tool for resolving conflicts of any severity. Nonetheless, managers may struggle to make use of it, and (consciously or not) avoid it.
How to deal with employees in conflict
Some simple guidelines:
- Plan the session out in advance. Anticipate things you might hear from the participants, and formulate responses. Mediation can be like an intervention– spontaneity is not often rewarded, but planning is.
- Think of your role as moderator rather than leader. You’re there to facilitate reasonable dialogue and hopefully find a resolution.
- Begin by informing both parties the discussion has to remain respectful. Your presence should help. Have the HR rep there if you think that will be of use.
- Let each of parties have his/her say in turn. Discourage interruptions, including questions, until the speaker is clearly finished. This practice is adapted from addiction intervention. Simply by making sure that all concerned have a chance to present their views– briefly, and to the point– you’ll lay the groundwork for a better outcome.
- After both have had a chance to speak, provide feedback to show that you heard and understood both sides. That may remind you of a therapy technique called ‘active listening’. It shows you were awake, paying attention, and got the message as intended.
- Only then do you open it up to more free-form discussion. If somebody gets overexcited, you intervene, reminding everyone that the solution will come from reasonable dialogue, not more argument.
- At some point, after a time, restate the importance of coming up with a plan to prevent future conflict. This plan will probably include agreements on a few specific issues where conflict is likely to re-emerge. Write down any points of agreement, and put them in memo form. You can either ask both to sign, or just give each a copy to keep.
- A copy can go in the employee files if you feel it’s best, but some managers would rather just note that the meeting took place with a broad description of its purpose, avoiding specifics. I tend to formalize these things, but not every manager agrees with me.
- By way of summary, remind both parties that the goal is to restore the smooth function of the operation, but if this meeting doesn’t do the trick, there are other steps that the organization can take. “It’s up to you,” you can advise them. “We need to make this work, for the good of the workplace. That’s our responsibility– yours, yours, and ultimately, mine.”
A last note: When conflicts are localized to one or two individuals or departments, avoid expanding them to the organization as a whole, which is what can happen if you hold a staff-wide meeting to admonish everyone about your expectations in terms of their behavior. The unintended result is often an increase in gossip and rumor as well as the taking of sides based on personal loyalties and sympathies. Not a good outcome. Unless it’s something that directly applies to everyone, don’t involve them.