Every business owner and manager has to address the issue of employee conflict from time to time. The conflicts I see and hear about typically have to do with personal habits or less-than-mature social strategies which manifest themselves in annoying or inappropriate comments and behaviors. It’s adults lacking positive relational and social skills, or “emotional intelligence.” These are some of the issues we address in our management training sessions
Employees often lack self-awareness which leads to a lack of social awareness. One employee becomes annoyed by another, and instead of taking a healthy, respectful approach to the relationship, the second employee either becomes passive-aggressive, outwardly angry, or goes to the manager or HR Director to “fix” the aggravating employee. The business owner often fills the manager and/or HR Director role. The bottom line is that it hurts the team culture.
I recall a few years ago having one particular business owner unload his frustration to me about his employees’ conflicts. He said he felt like he was running an adult daycare rather than a business. Many business owners share this frustration. Unfortunately, without a healthy strategy, owners and managers can exacerbate the problem.
Obviously, if an employee engages in sexual harassment or hostile behavior, we must address this swiftly and directly. The EEOC gives a clear definition for these situations. But the more common behaviors and conflicts do not fall into these categories. The conflicts I observe and hear about most frequently come from poor social skills, self-promotion, and general disregard for others.
The offending party is typically unaware of the impact of their comments or behaviors. Unfortunately, the conflict starts from “nothing” but escalates to relational and social tension.
So, what can you do?
Most of my work with business owners revolves around building leaders, teams, and culture. I recommend training your managers and employees using the 4 C’s: Compassion, Conversation, Confrontation, and Complaint. Let’s review each of the components of the 4 C’s:
Building positive relationships begins with kindness and compassion. We don’t have to be “best friends,” but we do have to respect one another enough to be kind, thoughtful, and caring. We’re all human beings with strengths and weaknesses. No one is perfect.
When you feel annoyed by another employee, the first step is to ask yourself, “Is this worth addressing, or can I show forbearance?” As stated, if it is harassment or hostility (by EEOC definition), it should be reported and stopped immediately by management. However, if it is mildly annoying behavior, it is often best to be forgiving, forbearing, and kind to the individual and NOT talk to others about it.
The Oxford Dictionary defines forbearance as “patient self-control; restraint and tolerance.” This is a compassionate response. Every important and meaningful relationship in our lives requires forbearance at times.
It requires us to extend grace and tolerance. And when dealing with a conflict at work, this is the best place to begin. Ask yourself, “Am I willing and able to overlook certain behaviors and comments without harboring resentment or animosity? Am I being as kind, respectful, and patient as I should be toward this individual?”
Starting with compassion requires us to examine ourselves first with humility and honesty. These relationships, when reflected upon, can make us better individuals – more patient and compassionate.
Sometimes a coworker’s behavior or comments are too much. Sometimes we see them making others uncomfortable or hurting the team culture. If so, it may be appropriate to escalate your engagement with the offending party by having a kind, respectful, direct conversation about their specific comments or behaviors.
Never try to speak to someone in generalities, and never speak to them when you are angry or frustrated. Be sure your heart and mind are in a good place before having a conversation such as this. Focus on helping and serving the offending person. And try to create a sense of safety through your words and tone.
I find it best to write out what I will say and rehearse it a few times. I want my words to come across as calm, caring, and helpful. I do not want the other person to feel attacked, so I keep it to one specific comment or behavior, not a list of things. I also like to ask their permission to talk to them about something I’ve been thinking about. My conversation might go something like this:
“Hey Joe, if you have a minute can I talk to you about something? (They will typically say yes.) I appreciate the good work you do and the expertise you bring to our company and team, but when you make comments like (give them a specific comment), I feel uncomfortable, and I’m starting to think other team members may be feeling the same way. Would you mind not saying that around the office? I would really appreciate it.”
Joe may become defensive, so I would do everything possible to let him know I want what’s best for him and the team. I would also tell him that I appreciate his friendship and that I appreciate him allowing me to share this with him. Assure him that you want him and everyone to enjoy our company and enjoy working together.
Joe may want to talk about it more (maybe from a sincere desire to understand or defensively.) I would be kind and respectful but avoid engaging in lengthy conversations. You’ve said what needs to be said and you’ve made your request. Just leave it at that. And be sure you remain warm and kind afterward. Create the most positive environment possible to allow him to feel safe and process your request.
My experience has been that nine times out of ten the “conversation” produces positive change if I’ve been kind, empathic, and direct. However, occasionally they react negatively, and they take the conversation south. They may not say anything but become very cold and distant. Worse yet, afterward, they become hateful or disrespectful. Maybe they appear to be OK, but the behavior or comments continue.
In this case, give them time and space to process your feedback or request. But if there is no positive change, you may want to escalate the conflict to the next level which is confrontation. Don’t let the word “confrontation” scare you. It simply means that you have to have a second direct conversation.
Just by virtue that you’re having a “second” conversation, it is going to feel a bit more confrontational. The issue may be their continued unpleasant comments or behaviors, or it may be their negative reaction to your first conversation. Either way, you’ve got to talk about it again.
Remain firm but compassionate. Focus your comments on what’s best for the team, not what you want. If the issue is the same comments or behaviors, restate the specific comment or behavior and ask them to stop for the good of the team. If the issue is his negative response to the first conversation, emphasize how important it is that we, as team members, be able to have respectful but direct conversations without negative repercussions. Hopefully, at this point, Joe will gain better self-awareness and self-control.
If the energy continues to be negative, you may need to bring it to the attention of management and solicit their involvement. It is a formal complaint at this point, and management has to step in and set clear boundaries and expectations. If a conflict escalates to this level, it is typically disrupting the team, and the offending team member must make a change or risk disciplinary action. No one wants this to happen so it should only be leveraged as a last resort.
Sometimes, to keep it from becoming management’s issue, you may want to take a respected team member (i.e., a witness) with you to talk to Joe before it becomes a formal complaint to management. If all else fails, management may need to step in to adjudicate.
The biggest mistake I see team members make is to let their emotions get out of control. When this happens, people feel attacked. Vulnerability and safety go out the door. This easily happens when we fail to take step one, where we make sure we are in a reflective, humble, compassionate place internally.
Another mistake is that team members lack the courage or self-control to have the first conversation. They go to management or, worse yet, other team members to air their grievances and invoke outside intervention. Relationships can be fragile. We must manage them with extreme care and respect. Company culture is all about relationships. The more selfless, direct, and compassionate we can be, the stronger our company culture will be. And best of all, the more we all grow and enjoy our work.
Glenn Smith Executive Coaching Can Help
If you are a business owner or executive who would like to help your managers be more effective with conflict resolution, team development, or overall performance management, please get in touch with Glenn Smith Executive Coaching. We offer Executive Coaching, Management Training, and Fractional COO/Integrator services to help you and your team achieve success. Request your consultation today!