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Manage and Avoid Conflict in Your Shop

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Working in an unhappy environment is more than unpleasant—it’s unhealthy, unproductive and reduces revenue coming in the front door. 

Whether it’s lingering bad feelings from a dispute or a general malaise that makes coming to work a chore, a negative work environment is “one of those things where you get a knot in your stomach as you get close to the shop in the morning, because you know exactly what you’re walking into,” says Kevin Wolfe, president of LeadersWay, a leadership coaching firm. 

With a philosophy drawing inspiration from Buddhist teachings and some of history’s great leaders, Wolfe outlines an easy-to-grasp concept: Cultural dysfunction negatively impacts the bottom line—and it’s worth taking action to prevent it. 

The solution isn’t easy, and requires creating a culture that’s designed to avoid conflict, and swiftly police it when it does occur. It may sound nebulous, but Wolfe vehemently asserts that improving communication and establishing practices for managing conflict should be at the top of any leader’s to-do list. 

“Nothing in today’s economy is more important than collaboration,” he says. “Anything that comes in the way of collaboration needs to be removed immediately to the point where the shop stops until we get this figured out. It’s absolutely 100 percent the responsibility of leadership.”

Recognizing Trouble

Chuck Miller, president of the four-location Chaz Limited Collision Express chain in Alaska, sensed trouble in his organization as the shop expanded beyond its first location in Fairbanks. Turnover increased, profits sagged and Miller felt little satisfaction and control over his growing MSO. 

“I outgrew my ability to lead this thing,” Miller says. “I [was] running around like a Tasmanian devil going from shop to shop trying to make time, and I got shorter and shorter, and the less I got what I wanted, the shorter that I got.”

Wolfe says Miller’s struggles at Chaz Limited aren’t unique, as many dysfunctional businesses will experience impacts to the bottom line that are difficult to track on a balance sheet. In his view, poor communication is the primary cause of poor productivity. 

Beyond gossip, backstabbing or employees withholding certain information that could assist one another, Wolfe says a specific symptom of a disengaged or poorly communicating staff is when a car reaches the front of the house with significant unresolved problems. 

“We know that if everybody’s communicating and the level of trust is high, those kinds of things are going to get caught and we’re not going to have the re-dos or the disappointments at delivery—these are all cultural symptoms of conflict,” he says. 

A core concept of the leadership training at LeadersWay centers around a basic truth: Humans are inherently poor at multitasking, and our brains can only focus on one significant task at a time. 

Wolfe paints a scenario where a recent hail storm created a significant backlog of cars needing urgent repairs. 

“If I have six guys … and I’ve got one technician that has a lower level of emotional intelligence, and he decides that he’s upset with the way a job’s going and he throws a fender across the floor and screams obscenities, that negativity now has become the distraction for the day,” he says. “Now these other five or six people are responsible for fixing cars and focusing on that work, but they can’t.”

He bolsters the scenario with a statistic from Gallup’s “State of the Global Workforce” study: Seven out of 10 U.S. workers admit they feel disengaged at work—a statistic Wolfe says should concern all business owners. 

Fostering Engagement

Reversing disengagement is a multi-step process that begins with preventing any trouble from carrying over into the next day. This so-called 24-hour rule means, if somebody is bothered by another, it is their responsibility to address the concern within 24 hours to prevent problems from festering while productivity suffers.

Miller says this simple sounding, but difficult-to-implement rule is one of many procedures enacted as part of a multi-year effort to improve the culture and communication throughout all of his stores.

“It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, because you’re always having to self evaluate and apologize and start seeing smaller and smaller levels of failure as you get better at it,” he says.

Another high-level concept used throughout the organization is the idea of doing no harm, taking care to voice concerns the right way, as opposed to saying things in a manner that will cause disengagement, anxiety or angst among team members. 

Doing no harm doesn’t mean avoiding hot topics or withholding strongly held feelings. 

“Two technicians having a [heated] conversation in the middle of the shop is not necessarily a bad thing, because that’s resolving an issue,” he says. “When it goes too far and it becomes disrespectful … now it’s not constructive anymore.

Handling such situations without making them worse means separating the person from the issue. Wolfe adds that this mindset leads to a challenging concept: “If I am in pain and don’t know how to deal with it, I transmit it to others.”

This is why, he says, self development is so critical for leaders, as they will remain in a cycle of harming others whenever things go bad or become challenging at the shop. 

Conflict Intervention    

When a conflict or argument inevitably erupts at a shop, Wolfe advises a specific set of steps to acknowledge, discuss and resolve the issue in a way that won’t impact productivity. 

1. Protect the Self Image: Before diving into the he-said-she-said or airing grievances, Wolfe recommends offering reassurance to a valued employee by letting them know that they are appreciated and their job remains secure. This assurance should not be extended to somebody if it isn’t true, and it isn’t simply the “sandwich technique” of shrouding negative feedback in positive affirmation. The point is to let them know they are appreciated, but that the situation that happened is not acceptable. 

2. Take Responsibility: The second step is the manager taking responsibility for the situation and not making it directly about the person involved in a conflict. This is where the leader can express their specific concerns and share frustration with the situation at hand. 

3. Be Direct: This step is the meat and potatoes of the intervention, where the supervisor can, without filter, discuss the details of what happened and why it is not acceptable. 

“Talking negatively about a fellow team member is not acceptable, and I need you to know that it won’t be tolerated here,” Wolfe says, as an example. “I can’t be more direct than that.”

4. Collaboration and Planning: Wolfe says the fourth step is critical to working toward a lasting solution. This is where the manager doesn’t just discuss the conflict, but asks what led to the problem and what could be done to prevent it from happening in the future. Moving on after a conflict will likely result in the employee continuing to dwell on the issue, lowering productivity. 

“Where [conflict management] derails is that we don’t tie it up—there’s no check-in, no insurance policy,” Wolfe says. “The last thing I’m going to do in this conversation is ask, ‘What have we committed to here?’”

Appropriate follow-up might include brief check-in meetings once a week for a few weeks to check for outstanding issues and ensure the employee goes forward with a desire to solve problems, instead of blowing up or harboring resentment. 

Preventing Negativity

As a multiple shop owner with more than 100 employees, Miller says other organizations should consider communication coaching as a lucrative, but time-consuming and painful, process. 

“Your people are the most expensive thing you have. To better utilize them is the most important work you can do, so this is all about raising productivity. People are working at 30–40 percent of what they can do,” he says, citing another Gallup study on workplace productivity. “As they quit using all of their emotional energy on the conversation that one of their co-workers or their boss just had with them, they now have that energy to put towards their work. If you can free their minds from all of the chaos that’s created from the human experience, all of that work now goes to their work.”

Wolfe acknowledges that part of his work with LeadersWay is “selling the invisible,” but says that, while subtle, culture and communication building can have profound long-term impacts. 

“If you don’t want negativity in your work environment, then you have to make that a non-negotiable,” he says. “We have enough to worry about. We’ve got broken cars, we’ve got upset customers, we’ve got insurance company demands, we’ve got competition. The last thing we need to worry about is ourselves, so we are committed to having a work environment devoid of conflict, and when differences come up we address them and move on.” 

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