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Management Side
Technical Side

The Complexity of Workplace Conflict

Early in my career I was told by an Engineer that the only real problems we would face in our careers were people problems. He went on to explain that solutions could be found for all other problems, but not always for those originating from personnel. As time progressed, I began to appreciate his wisdom more and more. When there are people conflicts, a lasting and satisfactory solution is not always achievable. And while other types of problems can sometimes be predicted using techniques like potential problem analysis, personnel conflicts can often arise unexpectedly and mushroom out of control rapidly.

What makes this issue so complex is that there are numerous sources of conflict. They range from those between co-workers, between workers and managers, to even disagreements between the company and its customers! An organization filled with conflicts will suffer many adverse effects, to include decreased productivity, absenteeism, high turnover, and possible heath issues. Managers must be able to recognize conflicts within their organization, and develop ways to resolve the issues on a timely basis. Unfortunately, some managers will ignore situations in the hope that they will simply disappear if given enough time. This approach is rarely the correct course of action.

It is generally accepted that workplace conflict causes stress. In fact, jobs and the workplace are often cited as one the main sources of stress. But before simply accepting this position, perhaps we should consider a different analytical view, as the opposite may also be the underlying cause. In other words, stress is a major contributor to workplace conflict. And unless a manager understands the causes of employee stress, the result is liable to be workplace conflict seemingly arising for no reason and becoming very difficult to resolve.

Not all employee stress ends up resulting in a conflict with other workers. In fact, sometimes stress can help performance under pressure or even be motivating. But there are many stresses that can negatively impact an employee. Managers must be able to recognize when these are present, and be prepared to react to their effects. And the stress may be caused by both internal and external sources, as shown in the following list:

• External employee related situations. It is difficult for an employee to separate personal issues such as family conflicts, financial difficulties, divorce, or health related problems from the everyday workplace environment.
• Internal work related situations. There may be cases where the job demands exceed an employee's capabilities, resulting in fear of job loss. Or, there may be feelings of discrimination or conflict between the job duties and personal values. Some employees may feel "left out of the loop" in important communications. And often overlooked is the workplace environment, which may allow too much interruption or noise for working efficiently.
• While the external sources of employee stress are very extensive and complex, there are many obvious symptoms which help a manager become aware of problems as they begin to surface, to include:
• An employee may exhibit an inability to concentrate or show signs of poor judgment.
• It may be noticed that an employee is constantly worrying over issues previously not felt to be very important.
• There may be indications of moodiness, anxiety, or depression. These often interfere with the ability to interact with other employees, and could lead to emotional withdrawal or loneliness.
• The employee's work output decreases due to procrastination in job assignments.
• There could be reports of concern over increased alcohol consumption or drug dependency.

Let's explore a few broader workplace scenarios which can contribute directly to internal conflict.

a.) Prejudices. These not only include discrimination against minorities, but also personality conflicts between existing employees and attitudes toward new employees.
b.) Performance reviews. Every employee needs to know how they are doing on the job, at least annually. Unrealistic performance expectations must be identified and evaluated accordingly. A negative review must include enough positive paths for improvement in order to prevent adverse future effects from arising in the workplace. These include wasted time, absenteeism, turnover, or expressions of anger.
c.) Customer relationships. Sales and customer service relationships with customers cannot be allowed to exist in conflict, and must be corrected as soon as possible. For example, a product warranty issue must be resolved with full agreement of the customer unless the company is willing to accept the loss of future business.
d.) Leadership relationships. Over ambitious managers can cause stress and conflict in the workplace to increase. There are wide differences between managers and their employees, which may include age, gender, educational background, personal experience, ethnic, and even political preference. It is important to create an atmosphere of looking at things from the other's point of view. The value of good relationships between employees, management, and other supporting networks cannot be over emphasized.

By now, the reader may feel there are no solutions to the complex "people problems" in the workplace. But I feel there are useful guidelines to assist managers in handling these types of conflicts.

1.) Catch the conflict early. Constantly watch for the symptoms discussed above and get involved as soon as there appears to be a conflict arising.
2.) Make no assumptions. It is tempting to think one knows the cause of conflict and have a solution in mind before possessing all the information to actually resolve the issue.
3.) Keep an open mind. There are at least two sides to every conflict. Listen carefully to all viewpoints, and respect the differences of those involved.
4.) Communicate. It is very important to keep communications open in conflict situations, but watch your words carefully. Keep in mind that a resolution to the conflict is the goal, not just a judgment on the issue.
5.) Know company rules and policies. Concentrate particularly on the contents of your company's manual as related to the handling of conflicts. Sometimes an issue can be resolved based on the strength of policy.
6.) Behave professionally. Don't become part of the conflict while trying to resolve it. And, never hold a grudge if you are made aware of your own deficiencies.

Conflicts in the workplace are always evolving. In fact, one is probably developing while you are reading this article. I hope the above discussion items will allow you to become more pro-active as you address the conflict side of management.

Robert Moore is a retired chemical engineer, and is an experienced technical and fictional writer. His past work experience spanned the chemical, paper and equipment manufacturing industries, including holding management positions at Voith Paper, Scapa plc, and The Mead Paper Corporation. He is also the author of humorous short stories about life in southwest Virginia, circa 1940-1960.


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