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Preventing Office Conflicts

When employees clash, it can wreak havoc on your entire company. Nip it in the bud before it gets out of control.

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Q: I am a small-business owner with 30 employees. Recently, we have had several conflicts develop among co-workers. As you can imagine, it is very disruptive to the entire office, and productivity and morale suffer as a result. How should I help resolve these interoffice conflicts?

A: Since you are the one who is responsible for creating the environment in which work takes place, you have a very big role to play. As you point out in your question, conflict can spill over and affect a whole company. This is why you must intervene, and quickly. If it continues, you will find that it will polarize the company, with employees choosing sides about who is right and wrong. Moreover, the employees not involved will look to you to solve the problem. They will hold you responsible if it continues.

The first thing you should do is confront the problem by bringing the two parties into your office to work out a solution. Give them only a few minutes to recount their grievances. Do not let it escalate. Do not let them interrupt each other. This is not about finding fault or fixing blame. It is an opportunity for them to know that you heard their side of the conflict.

Once that is over, ask them what they would like the other to do differently. Get very specific. Don't let them talk in generalities. "Change her attitude" is not specific. Get specific about three things: What do you want the other to start doing that he/she is not doing, what do you want him/her to stop doing, and what do you want each other to continue doing? Take notes.

Next you need to get each one to commit to positively reinforcing any attempt to do something on the "start list." Emphasize any attempt, no matter how feeble. Tell them to ignore any behavior that's on the "stop list." It is very important that they not respond to these behaviors in any way. Even a smirk can cause them to continue. For the "continue list," they should occasionally show each other appreciation for the things they do to help each other. The point of all this is to get the focus off the negative things and onto the positive ones, which, by the way, are almost always more numerous than the negative.

Once you've gone through this process, you need to tell them that not solving the problem is not an option. It is their responsibility to make this work, and if it can't be solved, more drastic measures will be taken.

Since you know all the behaviors that are involved, you can participate in providing positive reinforcement for the desirable behaviors you see. You should get a progress check every few days. If things are not getting noticeably better in two weeks, another session may be necessary in which more serious consequences are outlined. Most of these problems are solved by the steps outlined above, so hopefully this will not be necessary.

Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D., founder and CEO of management consulting firm Aubrey Daniels & Associates (ADA), is an internationally recognized author, speaker and expert on management and human performance issues. For more about ADA's seminars and consulting services or to order Aubrey's bookBringing Out the Best in People: How To Apply The Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement, visit www.aubreydaniels.com, or contact Laura Lee Glass at (800) 223-6191 or lglass@aubreydaniels.com.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.