The Problems Managers Face with Proactive Conflict Resolution

Managers can save the company money, time, and resources by a proactive approach to conflict resolution.  Many of our clients know this. They understand the ethical and legal responsibility to provide information and education to their employees regarding a respectful workplace.

However, other clients contact us reactively. Although they may have a bullying and harassment policy, and they may have even distributed that information throughout the organization, something has happened to warrant our services.

Oftentimes those companies will investigate the issue to find that there has been a misunderstanding of the rules of conduct. Furthermore, those investigations may reveal that there were real opportunities for early intervention and resolution.

One might wonder, had a supervisor or manager been more aware of a brewing situation, could this situation have been prevented?

Thinking Ahead

Our business focuses on delivering bullying and harassment prevention training.  We serve organizations throughout British Columbia, Western Canada, and the United States.

In a previous post, I spoke about the financial costs of bullying and harassment in the workplace. The fiscal numbers alone should be enough to motivate those in charge of providing us with a safe workplace to act. But often they don’t. Why is that?

Studies continue to show us that one of the reasons that there is a lack of response to difficult interpersonal workplace situations, is that managers lack the skills and confidence to do so.

The findings reflected in recent research (for example Saundry and Wibberley, 2014) shows that the approaches taken by front line managers actually act as a barrier to the early resolution of issues. The manager’s response (or lack thereof) actually make the situation worse. When examined by researchers, it was found that manager’s concerns over dealing with conflict stem from three main issues.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

First, some managers worry that addressing poor performance or behaviour might escalate, potentially resulting in grievances from the staff and an undermining of their authority.

This thought process tends to lead to an avoidance of the issue altogether. It seems as though these managers are operating under the expression, “Let sleeping dogs lie.” The trouble, however, is that this dog is not actually sleeping. It has one eye open and is growling quietly under its breath…
Bullying and harassment issues within a workplace usually fall under this category, and if left ignored, end up biting everyone. We must pay attention to those warning signs and respond appropriately.

How Do I Find the Time?

Second, managers often face pressure by the higher-ups to deliver improved performance by their staff. This change of performance expectations from the ‘normal’ may result in resistance from staff who may not like, or actively resist, change.

A number of managers suggest that operational pressures ‘crowd out’ the need to spend time talking to team members to uncover and resolve complex and difficult issues.  This is a very real problem.

Many of the managers and supervisors that we meet in our consulting business stress that they have almost no spare time to add anything else to their list of ‘must do’s’ in their job description. Additionally, those responding managers were concerned that their attempts to deal with conflict were not very visible and therefore might go unnoticed.

Managers are Not Trained in Proactive Conflict Resolution

Training was identified as a key issue when it comes to confidence in conflict management. There has certainly been an acceptance that, in the past, new managers were not necessarily equipped to deal with difficult issues.

I can personally attest to that. As a police officer moving up through the ranks, I might have been technically good at my job.  But the higher I rose in the organization, the more I dealt with issues inside the police station.   I  then spent less time with those important issues outside the station.

And I bet you can guess how equipped I felt to deal with those inside issues (it’s exactly why I’m writing this!).

Managers Need Training Too

So, what sort of education and information do managers and supervisors need in order to address this issue? Two main forms of management training have been introduced to organizations in recent years around the idea of ‘handling difficult conversations’ and ‘dealing with conflict, bullying and harassment’.

However, these elements are inserted into leadership programs aimed at senior level managers. In actuality, lower level managers and supervisors are the ones who can really benefit from this type of training. After all, they are the first ones who will be aware of the ‘sleeping dog’ in the workplace.
I will go over our training curriculum for ‘handling difficult conversations’ and ‘dealing with conflict, bullying and harassment’ programs in an upcoming post.

But in the meantime, I’ll leave you with this classic Inspector Clousseau clip, which aptly drives my point home.