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Managing Employee Conflict for Greater Productivity

If you have employees who don't get along--and if you don't know, you certainly will--these tips will help you resolve the situation to the benefit of both parties.

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Researchers estimate that more than 65 percent of performance problems result from strained relationships between employees rather than from deficits in their skill level or motivation. Helping those you manage handle conflict appropriately can improve performance dramatically. Additional results: lower employee turnover and a better bottom line.

There are four basic tenets of dealing positively with conflict:

1. Listen. Listen to your employees or colleagues who are in conflict. Let them tell you what the issue is as each of them sees it. Don't assume you know what the problem is; let them tell you. For tips on how to listen fully and effectively, click here to see Brief Tips Issues 1 and 2:

2. Focus on facts. People in conflict frequently describe the reasons for their conflict in vague terms. They might complain "She never listens to my ideas" or "He is so arrogant" or "She has such a bad attitude." Ask for descriptions of specific behaviors, because it is only behavior that you can reasonably expect to change. For example, someone who complains his ideas are "never listened to" might, when pressed for specific behaviors, admit that "When I burst into her office with a great idea, she waves me off with a request to 'talk about it later.'"

3. Show empathy for feelings. For most people, the sting of a conflict can be reduced when they feel understood. Expressing empathy means showing you understand how something can be difficult, how someone could feel sad about a situation, how someone could feel threatened, angry, upset. When you say, "I can see that you felt angry when she waved you off," you're not saying he should feel angry, or that "she" was wrong, or that you would have felt the same way. You are simply noting that the person in front of you was clearly angry. And you respect that.

4. Focus on behavioral change. Frequently people in conflict will not ever agree on an issue that has come between them. That's acceptable. What they can, and must, agree to do are 1) agree to disagree and 2) make reasonable changes in behavior that enable them to work together productively. In the example above, the fellow might agree to present his ideas to his colleague at an agreed-upon time when she is not engrossed in a project. She might agree to make certain he has plenty of opportunities to present his ideas to her.

Scott Miller is vice president of Kirk Miller & Associates Inc., a management consulting firm that writes and presents highly interactive workshops designed to improve productivity, retention and morale through developing employees' soft, or interpersonal, skills.