Resolving Conflicts Between Employees

April 1, 2009
In tough economic times, employee conflicts can be costly.

Dale Carnegie Training, which provides performance-based training support to companies and individuals, reports that the current economic turmoil is “producing an air of insecurity within the workplace.” As a result, Dale Carnegie is seeing a rise in the number of people who are seeking conflict resolution training.

I’ve seen evidence of that kind of turmoil in shops where some bodymen, painter’s helpers and office workers are being laid off. When it’s uncertain who will be the next to be let go, it’s only natural for employees to do whatever they can to make sure it is the other guy who goes instead of them. Unfortunately, in the interim, this turmoil can result in less worker cooperation, longer repair times and greater numbers of dissatisfied repair customers. At times like these, the manager may feel like a referee at an intense sporting event.

There are always the normal conflicts—personality clashes, poor communication and misunderstandings, or anger for legitimate reasons. But these “fear of loss” conflicts present owners and managers with a new challenge. It would be ideal to minimize these fears by making it known well in advance which departments might be first in line to be downsized. But that risks unintentionally encouraging people to leave when it’s uncertain that there will even have to be a layoff. Employees suspecting a layoff may seek other employment right away, rather than take the chance that they could be without income for a while.

“By being professional and understanding, a manager can resolve many intra-shop conflicts with tactful communication.”

In one shop, I noticed a conflict between an estimator and the front desk employee. The front desk person had been instructed to collect more information from each customer in order to give the shop more marketing opportunities with customer families and employers. The estimator saw this as an intrusion on his prerogative to handle all but the most basic communications with a customer. At times, this conflict heated up to the detriment of the shop. The shop owner valued both of these people highly. Somehow he had to find a compromise; both individuals would have to give a little in order to reach an agreement all around.

Resolution tactics

There is always the possibility that one technician may manufacture a complaint to make another “competing” technician look bad. Avoiding or ignoring the situation can lead to a blow up. Until this economic crisis blows over, more intense inter-shop negotiating and conflict resolution tactics may be required to keep people calm and at peace with one another. Some rules of thumb have become more or less standard conflict resolution practices over the years. Here are a few:

Approach each individual in person, privately. Don’t confront someone where everyone can hear or when there are other people present. Don’t take the easy way out and send an email or leave a note. This looks cowardly and is unproductive as well.

State the cause of the problem. This is important to make sure everyone is on the same page: One person may think the problem lies elsewhere, or could be upset about something completely different.

Make sure the person knows why the issue at hand is a problem. There is the possibility the person doesn’t even realize why there is a conflict.

Focus on the issue at hand. If the discussion gets heated, avoid bringing up past issues and unrelated ones. Stick to the problem at hand.

Be aware of your wording. Avoid such statements as “You always,” and other “you” statements that sound like personal attacks. Instead, try to make statements that reflect how the other employee and the shop are affected.

Be friendly. If an employee didn’t realize his behavior was a problem, he may correct the situation when approached professionally and in a nonconfrontational manner. By being professional and understanding, a manager can resolve many intra-shop conflicts with tactful communication.

Bring everyone together

With collaboration, those who are in conflict with each other are guided to work together to come up with a solution that benefits both parties and the shop. In the end, employees must come to understand that in a time of economic difficulty, shop managers have their hands full just keeping enough work coming into the shop to pay the bills. Adding internal conflicts to the burden of survival makes it all that much more difficult to keep everyone working. When a solution can be worked out that keeps jobs moving smoothly and quality work continuing to be accomplished, that is a win-win for everyone.

Tom Franklin, author of Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth, has been a sales and marketing consultant for more than 40 years.

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