There will always be workplace conflict, there is no getting around this fact. The question is, however, what is management’s role in creating employee conflict, and is there anything they can do to reduce conflict? Are companies destined to spend a significant amount of their time resolving conflicts? Or is there a way to lower the volume and the frequency of this problem?
In my opinion, leaders play a significant role in creating workplace conflict in the first place and, following that thought to the end, they are able to have a substantial part in preventing it from occurring. That’s a pretty bold statement, I know. This is not to suggest that management is the only reason conflict occurs, just that they have a leading role in helping it form and allowing it to continue.
Not that long ago, I wrote an article titled How Leaders Create an Entitlement Culture. This entitlement culture leads to employee conflict with each other and/or with management. Employees begin to think they make the rules, set the standards, decide what they want to do or not, and should be included with most decisions the company makes. That type of attitude is going to cause conflict, there is no way around it. When leaders want to enforce rules or have different expectations than the employees, clashes will occur. The first way leaders play a role in creating employee conflict is by creating an entitlement culture.
In what other ways is employee conflict management’s fault?
- Poorly defined expectations. The lack of clear expectations is a recipe for conflict. The, “I thought you meant…” or “I was waiting on Suzie to give me the information” or whatever else employees say that absolves them of responsibility is a direct result of poorly defined expectations.
- Ignoring problems and hoping they go away. Assuming that any problem or conflict will somehow resolve itself is foolish thinking at best, and irresponsible. Problems do not go away by themselves, they simply get bigger, uglier, and more vocal.
- Pitting employees against each other, deliberately or otherwise. Sometimes as managers we make comments about someone else’s performance and ‘suggest’ that others should use them as the model of excellence. Other times we unknowingly compare team members to each other, or without thinking say something negative to one employee about another. All you have done is set up the opportunity for conflict to occur.
- Assuming that by telling people to change their behavior they will change their behavior. Often, I have leaders tell me they keep telling their employees to behave differently and are surprised when they don’t. You can’t change people’s behavior by telling them to change. In fact, that is likely to cause additional conflict rather than reduce it.
- Dealing with the symptom and not the root problem. More often than not what people complain about whether it’s the company, a teammate, or their manager, is not the real problem. Maybe they don’t actually know what the problem is, but it’s your job as the manager to uncover it so the conflict goes away permanently.
- Wanting to make people happy. I am truly all about having an environment where people enjoy their work and are fulfilled. That, however, does not mean it is the leadership’s responsibility to make people happy. Like with children, no has to be the answer sometimes. And, also like children, sometimes they have to do what they don’t want to do.
- Believing money solves problems. Giving people a raise or a bonus or a promotion, even if they deserve it, will not resolve workplace conflict. Yes, for short periods of time someone feels better, but all this does is mask the problem and sooner or later the conflict will reoccur.
- The leader has poor communication skills. Poor communication skills could mean anything from pretending to care about the conflict when you don’t (by the way, they feel it even if you don’t think they do), to blaming them, and everything in between. Your communication skills as a leader can diffuse the conflict or escalate it.
- Making a commitment and not following through. Want to piss people off? An easy way to accomplish that goal is to make a commitment and not follow through.
Hey, the reality is that human beings see things differently from each other. Each of us forms our own ideas and beliefs because of upbringing, environment, influence by others, and a whole host of other factors. Having a different view of the world will cause disagreements and conflict, it’s inevitable. However, as leaders of an organization, we can increase the volume and intensity of the disputes or we can take an active role in reducing the dispute, and, at times, prevent the dispute before it occurs. In order for that to happen, you, as the leader, need to step up and take responsibility for what your role is in creating, exacerbating, or prolonging the workplace conflict. Then, and only then, significant change can begin.
Tired of the same old culture problems within your organization? Take thirty minutes and talk with Linda about how she has helped other companies move past the types of problems plaguing your firm.
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