Work to Eliminate the Friction Between Your Workers

Keep Your Business Well-Oiled
Scott Holstein
Melvina MacDonald

When something runs like a “well-oiled machine,” it means that there is no friction. All the pieces mesh smoothly, their motion unrestricted, with no rough edges to catch and no unimpeded abrading to generate excessive heat.

Why is that important? Because friction in a machine is generally destructive — it wears away the moving parts and eventually causes a breakdown.

Conflicts between employees in your business are the same way. The emotional heat generated when co-workers bicker damages the working relationships not just between those involved in the situation, but spreads to everyone else around them. Left unaddressed, it will lead to a broken workplace.

Unfortunately, conflicts are going to happen. Probably already are happening. That’s just a normal part of people working together.

As the boss, it’s your job to implement policies to help prevent those conflicts, identify them when they occur and act immediately to fix the problem so that your machine continues to run smoothly.

You have to be the oil.

It’s not simple, it can be uncomfortable and it takes time. But you may find that the successful resolution of a conflict actually improves the way your business runs.

“It is a part of any work environment,” said Melvina MacDonald, director of the Employee Assistance Program at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. “If we can work this through, there is going to be a benefit to all of us.”

What Is the Real problem?

MacDonald oversees conflict resolution for the 3,700 employees at TMH, as well as for the small businesses in Leon and surrounding counties that hire the hospital to provide employee assistance services.

She said that disagreements between employees build up over time, leading them to dislike and distrust each other to a point that each begins to “demonize” the other side. To them, the problem is all about how the other person’s personality conflicts with their own.

But they’re wrong.

MacDonald said that employee conflicts always come down to unfulfilled needs, not personalities. Each person involved has a need and feels it is not being met, whether that need is for a specific resource — computer equipment, for example — or for something less than tangential, such as personal space or respect.

A recent situation she handled involved two co-workers who shared a small cubicle space. The proximity meant that one often overheard the personal phone calls of the other, leading to arguments. They thought their problem was a dislike of each other.

The reality, MacDonald said, was not a personality issue, but that one employee felt she was being asked to carry more of the workload because the other was often on the telephone.

In other words, she did not feel she was receiving enough help with daily tasks. Her need for support from a co-worker was not being met.

And that, MacDonald said, is where conflict resolution begins.

“It’s about resources and needs, not personalities,” she said.

Letting It Go Is Not an Option

Dealing with workplace conflicts involves dealing with plenty of drama, and, while drama might be great on television, who needs more of it in real life? 

The temptation might be to ignore employee infighting because, as MacDonald says, “it gets real ugly.”

But the problem with that is that conflicts have unexpected and far-reaching effects.

“There are a lot of costs to not addressing conflict,” said Terry Sutter, a professional mediator who earned her master’s degree in Industrial/Organizational psychology from the University of West Florida.

According to a paper she’s written, unresolved employee conflicts can lead to:

Poor work performance — as much as 60 percent of deficiencies are tied to poor employee relationships.

Increased turnover — unresolved conflicts play a part in nearly half of voluntary terminations and the majority of firings.

Lower productivity — researchers believe there is a link between an employee’s perception of how fairly they are treated and their productivity.

Employee retaliatory behavior such as theft and vandalism — often caused by a perception of being treated unfairly.

There are other concerns too, according to Sutter, including an increased risk of litigation, high absenteeism and a problem attracting high-quality recruits as the workplace develops a reputation for being acrimonious.

How does this happen? Simple human nature.

“When you’re having a conflict, you want support, so you start bringing in other people,” Sutter said. The fight spreads beyond the original parties, distrust grows, communication and cooperation cease and “morale goes bad.”

Setting Yourself Up for Success

The consensus seems to be that proper conflict resolution begins before there is a problem.

Laurie Olshefski owns Shimmering Seas Jewelry & Gifts and three other retail stores in Seaside and Panama City Beach. Depending on the season, she averages between 22 and 30 employees, ranging in age from 20 up to 67.

In a small business, bickering can spread quickly and affect the morale of the whole team, cutting into performance. “And in retail, we can’t afford to have an off day,” she said.

So, she sets policies about the way co-workers should interact — “we don’t throw team members under the bus in front of customers or each other” — and makes those expectations clear to new hires. Those who can’t meet those expectations are weeded out quickly.

“I don’t tolerate drama, and I lay that out to people when they come to work with us,” said Olshefski, who was named 2011 Retailer of the Year by the Florida Retail Federation.

Positive attitudes are a must, she said, and not just from employees. Managers are expected to set the tone.

“It comes from the top down,” she said.

Meanwhile, she and her managers keep an eye out for behavioral changes that could signal a problem. When something comes up, a manager will sit down with those involved and let them air their grievances. Often, that in itself is enough.

“Sometimes, people just like to have their side be heard,” she said.

MacDonald, from TMH, also takes a preventive approach.

She said she often coaches small businesses to start by emphasizing an atmosphere of open communication, not just between bosses and employees, but also employee to employee. She recommends regular meetings to see how everyone is communicating, what needs they have and to clarify roles and expectations.

That helps to identify any potential problems early on. It also helps build trust in the workplace when employees feel someone is willing to listen.

Still, you can’t completely avoid the inevitable.

“Conflict is to be expected, and it’s normal,” MacDonald said. “But it’s how we handle it. We all get upset, we all get angry, but the expectation in the workplace is that you manage that anger, manage that emotion.’’

The Wrong Way — and Right Way — to Settle Workplace Disputes

In one episode of  “The Office,” bumbling paper company manager Michael Scott decides to take over conflict resolution duties from his human resource manager. His idea for settling disputes: a “cage match” in which the employees are forced to confront each other and argue out their problems.

As you can imagine, it didn’t quite work out.

MacDonald said that managers often think they can just order conflicts to be resolved.

“Managers believe that if they tell them how to behave, they’re going to do it,” she said. “But just telling them how is not a solution.”

That’s when employees simply walk away from managers and go “underground” with their conflict where it can fester and infect others.

Managers also sometimes make the mistake of sending the message to employees that, if they have problems, they can just bring them to the manager, who will solve them. The problem with that is that the employees end up not feeling as if they have an ownership in the solution … meaning it isn’t likely to last.

Conflict resolution is best handled in a structured way, according to the experts.

Trying to solve the problem while emotions are running hot is not productive, MacDonald said, so it’s best to give everyone time to cool down. Schedule a time for the employees and the mediator to sit down and talk.

Frame it as simply a problem that needs to be solved — not as a conflict that will have a winner and loser. Try to move the employees away from “demonizing” each other and get them to at least acknowledge each other’s positive contributions to the workplace.

Then, get to the root of the problem: what the employees need from each other. Together, come up with possible solutions. And, “don’t let anybody leave without a commitment to a plan,” MacDonald said.

But whose responsibility is it to do all that?

That depends on the business.

Generally, it’s best handled by those who have the training and experience, such as your human resources department or employee assistance program. Smaller businesses may choose to have managers do it, or to go outside the company to a contract program like the one at TMH or to a private mediator.

Sutter, the professional mediator, said it often depends on existing relationships. If the employees involved trust their manager, potentially big problems can easily be handled at that level. But if there is distrust, even small issues can become big ones.

“It’s really going to come down to that trust,” she said.

If managers aren’t in the best position to deal with the conflict, then going outside the company can make employees feel more comfortable, especially since many times they don’t believe that HR is on their side, she said. 

Of course, not all conflicts can be resolved. The possibility of settling the dispute has to be measured against the impact it is having on the workplace, the product and the customers.

“Then you’ve got to let your business decision drive it,” MacDonald said.

The upside to all of this, the experts agree, is that successfully resolving a conflict has a wider impact than just helping two employees get along better.

It helps reveal potential problems, such as how resources could be allocated better, leads to smarter and more defined company policies and helps managers and employees gain experience in dealing with people.

In the end, your machine may end up running smoother than ever. 

Categories: Human Resources