Bosses benefit bottom line by managing conflict

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There are more unhealthy workplaces than meet the eye. If you look closely, symptoms are there.

There's anger. Morale takes a nose dive. Workers blame each other, or anyone else, for problems. They develop non-helpful or defensive attitudes.

And, as bosses are beginning to figure out, unhappy workers hurt the bottom line. People are more likely to call in sick. They work less efficiently. And more of them quit.

Some managers are spending up to half of their work day managing conflict. And even with those attempts, companies still are losing billions of dollars each year from workers taking excessively long lunches, being sloppy, abusing sick leave, stealing, or working under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Carol Fielders sensed that the workers in the St. Louis (Minn.) County Public Health Nursing Department had more to give. She could see them making more decisions. She believed they could their own bosses. So Ms. Fielders and the 56 workers in her department took on the challenge of creating a better workplace.

Three years later, they've made great strides, and they're still improving. The workers are learning how to depend on others and think of themselves as part of a team. They now know how to anticipate problems instead of reacting to them.

And, hardest of all, they're resolving conflicts before they grow into cancers that weaken their workplace. When director Fielders talks about her former workplace, she sounds like a member of any group kicking an addiction. "We still have a long ways to go," Ms. Fielders said. "It's very easy to fall back into old habits."

Why is conflict so prevalent in workplaces? And why bother to resolve it? After all, isn't conflict just a part of life?

More and more workplaces are trying to cure their ills by diagnosing people problems. Management-training seminars offer prescriptions in "How to Handle Conflict and Manage Anger," "Guilt-free Assertiveness, How to Say What You Feel . . . And Feel Good About It" and "Dealing with Difficult People."

But as those who are working on it will tell you, managing conflict is more than a one-day seminar.

Workers in Ms. Fielders' department have learned that their attitudes about conflict can make the difference in its outcome. They regularly meet with a consultant to help them understand how they've dealt with conflict in the past. Some avoided problems altogether. Others felt the need to blame someone, or became defensive instead of listening to the criticism and learning from it.

"For example if I say, 'I didn't like what you did,' a non-defensive response would be 'Tell me more,' or 'How could I do it better?' Ms. Fielders said. "The basic thing is trust in one another. That way you can build up emotional bank accounts you can draw on when you need to."

Conflict can be normal, and if it's harnessed in the form of friendly competition, it can even motivate workers to do a good job. But not resolving some disputes can be hazardous.

Let's say your co-worker, Cyndi, drives you crazy with her loud telephone voice. You want to tell her to quiet down, but you're afraid to offend. So you put up with it and do a slow burn. You may start to resent her and even try to sabotage her. Maybe make her look bad in front of the boss. Gossip about her with co-workers and get others angry, too. What you could have done instead was tell Cyndi that she's too loud and you find it difficult to concentrate. And remind her every time you need to.

Workplaces with unresolved conflicts are filled with backbiting employees who lie in wait to cut down others' ideas. The company's goals from the executive offices aren't the view from the front lines. Customer service might be the motto, but try to get some help at the window and all you get is a runaround.

Other conflicts are rooted in clashes of values.

Let's say Bill is a Mormon and Craig is a fundamentalist Christian. Each feels the other's religious beliefs are wrong, and they refuse to work together, even though religious beliefs have nothing to do with their jobs.

"Getting workers to respect each other's values and not feel they have to control the other is a big thing," Ms. Fielders said. "It's a real pervasive problem in our society."

Collaboration means joint confrontation and resolution.

Communication-skills trainers like Gaye Ann Lynch say conflicts are caused by workers failing to communicate assertively. Assertiveness means, simply, knowing how you feel and saying what you mean.

Assertiveness

Sounds simple. But for many workers, particularly women, it's anything but that.

"We're raised to be seen and not heard," said Ms. Lynch, who recently conducted an assertiveness training workshop for women. "We're taught to 'act like a lady.' That means be polite. But are we taught to be strong? No."

It's also part of our culture not to be direct so we don't hurt a person's feelings.

So when a worker has a problem with another worker, he or she will tell everyone except the person he or she is having the problem with. This stirs up the pot and gets many more people involved in a conflict than need to be.

The first tenet of Ms. Lynch's statement of human rights is, "You have the right to express your thoughts and feelings." That means knowing what your thoughts and feelings are. Because women in particular live their lives through other people, they worry about what others will think when they express their feelings.

How to resolve things

What can workers do to resolve conflicts? Bringing in a neutral person helps, Ms. Fielders said. An outsider can help workers accept advice they may know themselves, but just don't want to admit.

Or teach workers to offer constructive criticism up front.

Ms. Fielders is helping co-workers get their ideas on the table during staff meetings. Sometimes she calls on employees who might be post-meeting water cooler critics to get their reaction and draw them out.

"We can get two or three ideas and then decide which is best, or maybe develop a hybrid," she said. "At a recent meeting, we had a whole blackboard of ideas."

tTC Or be selective about which conflicts you want to handle. Not every battle has to be fought, so save your energy for the #F important ones.

Figure out the causes of conflict. Is it personalities or the structure or your organization?

The old way of doing things can be a formidable barrier to improving a workplace, said Jeff Thompson, a Duluth, Minn., business consultant who is working with the county's Public Health Nursing employees.

"A lot of us were brought up in autocratic, top-down organizations, and we expect to be treated that way," Ms. Fielders said. "Employees allow that to happen by taking a dependent role instead of being proactive and pushing back."

Understanding

Workers also can look to themselves to handle conflict effectively, and part of that is breaking their dependency and taking responsibility for a better workplace.

That means understanding other workers, their values and their interests. You'll be better able to handle conflict if you can see the situation through their eyes.

"Before, it was me making the decisions," Ms. Fielders said. "Now I go to the team, and they see the difference. They told me, 'When you decided, we could complain, but now we have to decide and we can't play those games with one another any more. Now we're all in this together.'"

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