From the January 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

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."

Bury The Hatchet

How can a boss resolve a petty dispute between employees? Step one, say the experts, is creating an atmosphere that squelches tiffs before they become problems. "Set explicit norms for office behavior and widely promulgate them in memos, bulletins and meetings," advises Jerry Osborne, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Houston.

This means coming up with guidelines that, for instance, ban obscenities, insults and abusive behavior. The more specific, the better. "Lay out measurable expectations for how people are to behave. Then advise the staff that they will be held accountable for living up to these norms," says Pat Wagner, co-owner of Pattern Research, a Denver-based workplace training company.

Step two: Sweeten the deal by establishing group-based rewards, advises Vecchio. The point? To tangibly remind workers they are all in the same boat. "A group-based bonus gets people looking at each other not as enemies but as brothers and sisters," says Vecchio. Even a small bonus rooted in group behavior may be enough to bring more harmony to your business.

Finally, you need to model appropriate behavior. "Employees take a lot of clues from the boss. If the boss is good-humored, direct in dealing with others, and follows the rules set down for everybody, that's 90 percent of the solution for ending workplace conflicts," says Wagner. "If the boss isn't a role model, it's much tougher." Just as a parent cannot curse out a kid for using obscenities, a boss who verbally abuses employees can't demand harmonious conduct from them. Until your behavior is up to par, don't expect good behavior from employees.

Final Warning

What if workers continue to bicker, despite clear rules and your good example? Don't turn a blind eye--that tells people your workplace conduct standards are just for show. Instead, quickly call workers on any infractions. "Make clear that their conduct is not acceptable and get their commitment to cease such behavior in the future," says Osborne.

But do this privately, not publicly--not only to respect the parties' privacy but, just as crucially, to prevent a public airing of strife from dividing the other workers. "Keeping it private helps prevent everybody else from taking sides," says Osborne.

Put the burden on the employees to sort out their problems. "I've seen managers who spend virtually all their time resolving personnel issues," warns Rogers. "Every conflict is brought directly to `mom' or `dad'--that's the role this boss plays in the workplace. Workers never learn to resolve their own difficulties."

Of course, this doesn't mean you can't give tips. For instance: "A big step toward ending conflict is to ask the parties to [consider] the other point of view," says mediator Couch. "The aim is to get them to put aside emotion and concentrate on facts."

They're still at each other's throats? Have them enlist a neutral third party to mediate. "People frequently just want to vent. This gives them a place to do it and also lets them see the other point of view," says Couch.

Should you be the third-party mediator? There are risks. As the boss, you are "an authority figure, and that may make it harder for workers to open up in front of you," says Couch.

Second, as Rogers warns, "You cannot afford to spend most of your time settling employee differences."

If your business is so small that this buck has to stop at your desk, consider a tactic Couch uses: He asks participants to list their resentments--then burns the list. "The resentments literally go up in smoke," says Couch. "It's gotten good results."

If that doesn't end the civil war, your last move is tough love: Lay the hard facts on the line about the costs the business is suffering and why the fighting has to swiftly end. Then "make the workers mutually responsible for a positive outcome. Say `Your jobs are on the line here. Work this out,' " says Couch. Be very clear that prolonging this tiff will result in terminations, then set a deadline for an absolute cessation of strife.

The upshot of it all is likely to be a stronger, more cohesive work team. Indeed, while many bosses fear a fight will weaken employee morale, successfully concluded fights tend to build cohesiveness.

"Often conflicts are real opportunities for a team to come together," says Couch. "Once people have worked through unpleasantness, they work much better together."

Robert McGarvey writes on business psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or ideas, e-mail rjmcgarvey@aol.com.

Contact Sources

Albert Couch, c/o The Conflict Management & Mediation Center, (330) 867-3247, bertcouch@aol.com;

Pattern Research, (303) 778-0880, pat@pattern.rmnug.org;

The Trusting Edge, (415) 493-1668, LouisaRog@aol.com.