Turning down the heat Featured

12:36pm EDT August 30, 2006
Allowing tensions to build at the workplace is a recipe for disaster. The longer the problems go unresolved, the greater the chances for an eruption. Conflict resolution is a method of resolving disputes through mediation with the ultimate goal of finding a win-win situation for all parties involved.

In order for a business to take advantage of conflict resolution, a culture has to be in place which encourages people to mediate their problems. “Companies have to set the tone and lead by example,” says Michelle Lipton, adjunct professor at Woodbury University. “Not only should they offer mediation, but encourage it and reward employees who take advantage of it.”

Smart Business spoke with Lipton about how conflict resolution can help address disputes, the risks associated with allowing interpersonal conflict to fester and when conflict resolution should not be used as the first line of defense.

What types of issues typically spur conflict in the business environment?
Most of the time, it is interpersonal and can include poor communication among employees. Employees and management personnel often have different values in the workplace and different interests — they might want to advance their personal goals at the expense of organizational goals. Also, scarce resources are a big problem. If people feel that there aren’t a lot of resources to get the job done and they have to compete against others, this often causes conflict.

How can conflict resolution help address disputes?
It helps through interest reconciliation. Usually, someone files a complaint with the human resources department saying another person did something wrong. Then it becomes a power contest, where the employee is admonished, or a rights contest, where someone in charge says he or she is suspended. With this method there is no resolution, just fuel to the fire. By doing interest reconciliation, you get the two people to sit down and work it out themselves. This way, they will continue to cooperate in the future and will have a better working relationship. So many corporations don’t implement conflict resolution where they try to find a win-win solution.

What principles can businesses use to successfully manage conflict resolution?
Self-help mediation is the best way with most workplace conflicts. Let’s say I have a problem with a coworker, and management is clueless and not in favor of managerial mediation. I could use certain techniques where I would sit down with that person and mediate so that we could find a win-win solution to the business problem.

If you are a good manager and you see employees having a workplace conflict, you can do managerial mediation. This involves a manager acting as an impartial third person. There are no taking sides; you just have them talk until they resolve the situation.

You can also do team mediation if there are teams that are having a problem and are not working toward the goal that the company needs them to accomplish.

Finally, there is preventive mediation, which is a way to keep things in check before it escalates to the point where you have a problem.

What are the risks associated with allowing interpersonal conflict to fester in the workplace?
At its worst, workplace violence happens. How many times have you talked about someone ‘going postal’? If no one did, then that term wouldn’t have been coined. Unresolved conflict often reaches a boiling point where someone gets so frustrated with the workplace conflict that violence erupts and lives are sometimes even lost.

There are also labor strikes, which come from workplace conflict. We see vandalism, where people are so upset that they leave and destroy the company’s equipment. People may become so disenfranchised that they resort to malicious whistle-blowing, where they lie to cause an aggravation. In some instances, they might even file a retaliatory lawsuit. Even though it’s a fake lawsuit, it can cost the company a lot of money.

Are there any instances where conflict resolution in the workplace should not be used?
There are a few situations where mediation is not proper as the first line of defense. For example, violations of legal or ethical requirements such as cases of sexual harassment or fraud need to be handled differently. In the case of personal problems, such as a divorce or a drug or alcohol abuse problem, the employer should refer the employee to the employee assistance program for help. Also, if there is a substandard individual job performance that is causing a workplace conflict, you might want to give some additional training to the person who is performing below expectations.

MICHELLE LIPTON is an adjunct professor at Woodbury University. Reach her at (213) 576-7591 or mlipton@corp.ca.gov.