Breaking The Grip Of Unresolved Conflict

The answer to addressing the personal factors of loss causation must lie in equipping current line level supervisors — those most likely to first identify an interpersonal conflict in their work area — with the people skills and method to accomplish interpersonal conflict resolution.|

A Simple Method Reduces RiskThe word conflict has a distasteful overtone. A worker who constantly fosters conflict is typically known as a troublemaker, someone who is undesirable and to be avoided. Deeper down lies the troubling common sense realization that there is a close link between workers who are embroiled in unresolved conflict and a wide variety of losses that are sustained on the job. Increasingly, the failure to resolve conflicts through the employee management process creates risk management liabilities. Despite this, a survey by the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) found that "many companies and organizations in all industries have yet to address the problems" created by interpersonal conflict in the workplace. Risk management expert George W. Pearson agrees with the ASSE survey. He thinks that most organizations have not undertaken the most basic step — equipping its workers to resolve basic interpersonal conflicts. Tying conflicts to instances of workplace violence, Person states that most business managers do not "understand the elements of threat assessment and crisis management." Conflict resolution has been relegated to the secondary duties of the Safety, Health, Environment, Quality professional or, worse, rarely acknowledged as a cause of loss. But it should be. Interpersonal workplace conflicts are included as one of the basic (root) causes of loss under the category of "personal factors" in Frank E. Bird, Jr.'s famous Loss Causation Model (figures 1-3). unnamed Personal factors are defined by Bird as follows:
  • inadequate capability: physical/physiological — mental/psychological
  • lack of knowledge
  • lack of skill
  • stress — physical/physiological — mental/psychological
  • improper motivation
This definition reads like a list of the perfect conditions for breeding interpersonal workplace conflicts. Often workers are asked to perform job tasks or duties for which they feel a lack of job knowledge, skill, and motivation, or for which they are not suited because of physical, mental, or psychological stress. Laborers are asked to labor, line level leaders are told to lead, and managers are tasked with developing systems of management — all with little regard to the workplace dynamics that may foster debilitating, potentially deadly interpersonal conflicts. Such dynamics are left to the human resource "experts" to consider. When conflict occurs it is more often addressed through human resource policy than it is operational management practice. Most organizations do not employ a practical operations-friendly method for quickly resolving conflicts. Sadly, interpersonal workplace conflict is not properly addressed until the conflict either:
  1. endangers the health, safety or welfare of the workers, the environment or the public;
  2. precipitates a higher rate for insurance coverage; and/or,
  3. threatens to distract the focus of the workers away from production of the job task.
One of the primary reasons that interpersonal workplace conflicts are left to fester is because they are not perceived as being easy to address. By definition interpersonal conflict is a personal conflict between two or more people. People problems require people skills to solve. People skills are many times on short order in industries that demand high, risky production. Conflicts Are Normal Much of the hesitation to address interpersonal workplace conflicts is removed when a proper perspective on conflict is gained. Conflict is a normal response (behavior) to an oppositional situation. How simple. It is a normal behavioral response, just like happiness, joy and sadness. No one escapes it; everyone has to deal with it. Its presence is not a sign of weakness nor is its absence a sign of good character. Most people do not seek conflict, but conflict seeks most people. Ignoring an interpersonal conflict, thus allowing it to fester, often creates a crisis situation that is accompanied by extreme emotion. If unaddressed, it can literally tear apart the fabric of a work team, thus opening the door to unprofitable work practices.
Developmental This stage of interpersonal conflict is associated with the normal stages of relationship development among workers. Situational This stage of interpersonal conflict is associated with the more unpredictable or exceptional conflicts between workers.
Example: the initial acceptance of a new worker turns to distrust because of one of his work habits that annoys others. This is a normal by-product of the relationship development process. The "honeymoon" with the new worker goes away and the reality of his work limitations appears. If the expectation level for the worker was initially too high, then his disappointing work performance might cause interpersonal friction with others. He might be perceived as having an "attitude." Example: a long overlooked promotion finally gets the best of a worker, evidenced when he "explodes," becoming uncontrollably furious at a coworker whose behavior he has tolerated for years. He becomes easily irritable over the next few days, showing rapid mood swings and less tolerance of the behaviors of others. He explodes at others for what seem like petty reasons, provoking a similar reaction from them. A sudden interpersonal workplace conflict thus develops.
Stages Of Interpersonal Conflict Interpersonal workplace conflicts are typically identified in two stages — developmental and situational. The best practice is to recognize and deal with interpersonal workplace conflicts while they are in the developmental stage, before reaching the situational or crisis stage that places anyone or anything at direct risk. But as has been stated, getting workers to properly address and/or resolve interpersonal workplace conflicts closely ranks in challenge to getting someone to voluntarily visit a dentist. With conflicts, the fear of sticking one's nose into the emotional business of others only slightly outweighs the fear of not knowing how to go about the process in a productive, win-win manner. To prevent a loss of any kind, however, workers must make a commitment to identify and address interpersonal workplace conflicts as a part of preventative process. Any management system that ignores this basic cause of loss is otherwise liable. Conflicts Can Be Resolved Equipping workers of all ranks to properly address interpersonal workplace conflicts is as simple as A-B-C. The A-B-C process of resolving workplace conflicts (described below) allows workers to quickly simplify conflicts into short, manageable segments or statements. Once simply stated, the conflict becomes immediately manageable to the point of resolution. The interpersonal conflict resolution process is summarized as a three-step process:
  • Achieve contact with each conflicting party.
  • Boil down what the presenting problems are.
  • Cope with the problems by developing plans of action.
A — Achieve Contact (Attention) The first step in conflict resolution is to simply gain the undivided attention of all parties involved. The goal of achieving contact is to have all parties agree to sit down and commit to a resolution process. Individual parties involved in the conflict may need to be approached separately in order to urge them to enter the resolution process. Once all parties are gathered, they must agree that they will not leave the meeting until a solution to the conflict is achieved. The exercise of good people skills is the key to getting both parties to sit down and agree to resolution. Those who attempt to facilitate a resolution must call upon the following people skills in order to get the resolution process rolling.
  1. Attending behaviors. Attitude and actions of concern must be shown. This involves good body posture, appropriate meeting place, manners, eye contact, etc.
  2. Listening. Excellent listening skills must be demonstrated-not verbally forcing the issue of resolution on others. Facilitators should listen to complaints without judging each party, indicating to them that an objective, neutral ear is listening. This will disarm those in conflict and influence them to sit down and work out a solution.
B — Boil Down (The Problem) Rarely does a conflict consist of only one item. Workplace conflicts are typically composed of a jumble of differing emotions, behavioral tendencies, and battles over job tasks and exercise of authority. The "B" step, boil down, is designed to help both parties talk through the present conflict and boil down the problem(s) into one manageable issue. Bringing such order out of chaos requires a formalized listening process where each participant tells the facilitator what he thinks the problem is. The facilitator's role is to listen to each participant's story and help them boil down what they say into one simple statement that accurately summarizes the primary issue causing the conflict. This is done through the reflective listening process, a people skill. Allowing each participant to speak without interruption, the facilitator listens to what both parties say is their view of the conflict. After they have spoken, the facilitator then uses a reflective listening question to feed back to them what they have expressed. For example, "Are you telling me...?" or "Did I hear you say...?" This gives the participants a chance to either agree or disagree with the facilitator's summary statement of what they have said. This boiling down process is repeated until the facilitator has a clear understanding of the issues surrounding the conflict and the participants are able to agree upon the one main issue causing it. Again, the exercise of good people skills is crucial in this step of conflict resolution. In addition to the verbal skills that enable a mess of feverish input to be boiled down into a simple summary statement, the facilitator also helps the parties to focus on the main issues by facing reality, filtering out irrelevant data, revealing past experiences and formulating an understanding of the problem. C — Cope Actively (Make A Way Out) Once the main issue causing the conflict has been identified, the last step to resolution is to help the participants cope with the conflict. This involves developing and implementing a plan of action which provides a way out of the conflict. This plan should take into account several factors:
  • What do the participants want to see happen?
  • Who or what can help them?
  • What else can be done to help out?
  • How is the plan to be carried out?
  • What evaluation is to be done to tell how the plan is doing?
The plan should be simple, easy to carry out and easily evaluated for success. It should focus on only the one main issue identified by both parties (through the boil down process) and it should be put into effect as soon as possible. Conflicts Require People Skills To Solve Has this point been made enough? The process of interpersonal workplace conflict resolution demands the exercise of good people skills. Therein lies the most formidable challenge. People skills are in short supply in industry sectors involving high productivity demands, high safety risk job tasks and high risk/reward investment. In addition to a shortage of people skills, such industry sectors typically face additional challenges to conflict resolution because of high turnover rates, seasonal workers, cultural barriers and a general absence of supervisory skills in line level supervisors. My statistical research of the behavioral tendencies and personality traits of line level supervisors in such industry sectors indicates that more than 75 percent of supervisors demonstrate a task-oriented approach to supervision versus a people-oriented approach — task before people. For Risk Management's Sake For risk management's sake the answer to addressing the personal factors of loss causation must lie in equipping current line level supervisors — those most likely to first identify an interpersonal conflict in their work area — with the people skills and method to accomplish interpersonal conflict resolution. The task may seem daunting, but to neglect it is to knowingly limit the effectiveness of any risk control effort and to invite unnecessary loss.

Ron Newton

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Ron Newton

Ron Newton is the president of PEAK Training Solutions and the author of the top-rated business book No Jerks on the Job. Ron founded PEAK when business leaders and insurers asked him to help them improve employee engagement in change-resistant work environments through ‘soft skills’ training. Previously, he directed a rugged wilderness camp program to rehabilitate troubled teens. Newton is a Dallas Theological Seminary graduate.


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