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While I was at our company retreat I had the opportunity to discuss the aspects and benefits of positive constructive conflict and separating the people from the problem to our entire organization I learned from your program. I was approached by numerous coworkers who thanked me for what I said. One in particular said, "thank you for saying that, we need to figure out ways to work together so things do not get out of control."

--Retreat participant


Management Skills Can Deter Workplace Anger

Jack won’t honor a production deadline with Sam, Mary won’t give Susan her messages, and Him has to go home early because he can’t take it anymore. Is this a daycare or a workplace?

The American Management Association took the lid off what many had suspected for some time. Citing survey results, it reported that anger is alive and well in the workplace, triggered by employee dissatisfaction with management and unequal workloads between employee.

No matter how small the company, as soon as there is even one employee,
good management requires an equal investment in working with both people and products. Good managers create productive and satisfying relationships by using two tools, working agreements and conflict management.

Filter out angry or irritable people in the interview and reference checking process. After hiring, written working agreements and five conflict management methods can help prevent blowups and similar unfortunate events.

Working Agreements

Some employers or managers are so glad to have another body to help out they think hiring the person is the end of the process. It’s only the beginning. New hires who are expected to figure out the job or trail after someone who has done it before are the least successful on the job. Managers who spend even an hour with new hires outlining expectations and getting agreement on how they will work together increase the likelihood of good performance and job satisfaction.

Making a written working agreement helps both employer and employee understand what is expected. Each employee may be a bit different, but everyone should have a record of agreed-on expectations. These agreements include expectations regarding attendance, promptness, customer service, relationships, learning the job, performance standards, support, accountability, disagreements, and giving and receiving feedback. The list can be adjusted based on what makes sense, and kept in the company file and by the employee.

Pay particular attention to expectations about how employees disagree, with each other or with the boss. One person’s insubordination is another person’s participation. Assume there will be disagreements and decide how you want to handle an opinion different from your own and explain it to your employee. Agree on how to disagree.

The part of the agreement that includes giving and receiving feedback is especially important for good communication and expectations. People like to know how others, especially the boss, think they are doing. They may not like a performance appraisal, but they usually like that someone paid attention and has something useful to say about their work. This information must be relevant and specific. For example, a manager might say to an employee, “When you told Mrs. Harrington ‘I’m just doing what I’m told.’ It sounded as though you didn’t care about her problem, and you didn’t particularly agree with how you were handling the situation but you had to do it that way. It would have been better to say something like, ‘we can’t give you a cash refund without the receipt but we’re happy to trade merchandise. If you’d like something else, I’d be happy to call the manager.’

This is much more effective than a manager saying nothing, or “You’re not very good with customer service.” Younger workers are usually much more interested in frequent, useful feedback because most of them had it in school or in games. More mature workers usually prefer less feedback or smaller doses over a longer period of time.

The important thing for the manager to do is discover each employee’s preference. There’s no point in sending a message that can’t be received, and silence is the most difficult message to interpret. These agreements set the stage for managers to make corrections and provide encouragement from the beginning. Relationships with employees who have been in the company for a while can benefit from such an agreement. Bring it up over coffee as a way to clarify working expectations. This conversation is a two-way street and doesn’t come across as a command or evaluation, but as an invitation to problem solve and be clear. The secret with both new and long-term employees is not just to set the expectation, but follow-up on it. In this case words without acts are worse than no words at all.

Handling Conflict

Malcomb Forbes said work without conflict is a hobby. Successful managers come to terms with conflict and learn how to manage their own conflicts and help employees manage theirs. Conflicts can be big or little, about who gets what promotion or who comes in late. When managers have an Achilles heel, it is usually in handling conflict. They really need to know how and when to collaborate, avoid, accommodate, compromise and compete.

When the manager and an employee, or two employees, aren’t getting along, use a simple collaborative resolution. Have each party explain, without interruption, the concern and perception while the other listens and then paraphrases the understanding. Many conflicts are due to misunderstanding rather than disagreement. With good communication, misunderstandings almost resolve themselves, but fester if left untended. Good managers help employees resolve conflict by giving suggestions about how to hear what each is saying, or moderating, they just don’t say “go work it out.” Staying out of employee conflict is advisable at times, but not at the expense of losing a good employee who is fed up with a co-worker or letting conflicts, instead of customers, become the main focus at work.

The managers who are least successful in dealing with employees are so uncomfortable with conflict that it is ignored until someone blows up or leaves. When a manager avoids or ignores ongoing conflict the employee hears “I don’t care.” It doesn’t matter what the manager means, what matters is how it appears to the worker. It is easy for managers to get busy with the product and forget the person that only adds to employee anger.

Managers who aren’t skillful at handling conflict can wait so long to step in that, when they do, they overcompensate by getting angry and making unilateral decisions about even trivial things. Describing the problem from the manager’s perspective and soliciting employee opinion is preferable. Save managerial clout for when it’s really needed.

Sometimes a manager may want to accommodate an employee if the employee has a preference about a method or project. Relying on employee judgment about non-critical issues develops staff ability and is usually appreciated as a sign of respect and recognition by the manager.

Compromise is another strategy for resolution, but unsatisfactory if the issue is important. To “split the difference” is a quick method, but tends to encourage game playing by parties who want to swing a decision in their favor. Issues are added so it appears they are giving up a lot when the compromise occurs.

Another conflict resolution method, high in aggression, is competing (also known as “Do it my way”). A useful strategy in emergencies, enforcing unpopular decisions and relationships with those who take advantage, it’s most frequently the result of frustration If used too much, it may result in being surrounded only with people who agree, which can eliminate constructive dialogue.

Many techniques are available, and in the case of anger and conflict an ounce of prevention really does have a big payoff.

© Lunell Haught, PhD, CMC

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