Workplace violence gets the headlines, but is a less dramatic kind of conflict eating away your profits? "When employees are bickering, pouting, arguing, it's costing you productivity," says Albert Couch, a professional mediator in Akron, Ohio.
You know what these conflicts look like: John has stopped talking to Sue, Tim won't be on a team with Bob, and Mary yells at just about everybody. Employees' voices get raised to loud volumes, and, often, feelings are hurt and a sullen mood hangs everywhere. Why are they fighting? Maybe Oscar never makes fresh coffee when he drains the pot, Maria has let her desk turn into a messy jumble, and Boris blows his nose and throws the tissues on the floor instead of in a basket.
Shouldn't people know better than to fight over little things? Maybe so, but the workplace reality is otherwise. "Much conflict is rooted in small stuff, but the emotions behind the conflict are what matter," says Couch. "Those emotions can assume great significance."
Even so, the knee-jerk reaction of most bosses is to try to ignore these squabbles. "Most bosses just aren't comfortable dealing with any kind of conflict among their staff," says Louisa Rogers, owner of The Trusting Edge, a management consulting company in Palo Alto, California. While most bosses try to wish their people conflicts away, guess what? "When these problems are ignored, they fester and grow," says Rogers.
The stakes are higher today, too. As workers are asked to do more, tempers flare faster and fights are harder to extinguish. Worse, such conflicts represent an escalating danger to the profitability of leanly staffed businesses. "You cannot ignore your workers' feelings and expect to be successful. That's abdication of an important management role," warns Robert Vecchio, a professor of management at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana.
"Productivity is the yardstick to use in deciding whether to intervene or not," adds Couch. "If the fight is hurting productivity, you have to get involved."