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Resolving Employee Conflict

As a theatre manager, you are bound to come across conflict between your staff or others who work with your company. How you deal with it can have a great impact on the workplace. If conflict isn’t managed in a productive way, things can escalate and turn into larger issues, which can require mediation or even investigations.

One reason for conflict in the workplace is that we often train people on their hard skills and specialties, but we often miss training on soft skills and basic interaction/ communication skills.

Before we get into some ways that you can go about solving conflicts, here are some common barriers to resolving issues:

  1. Not distinguishing between operational and interpersonal issues
  2. Not stopping to consider other view points
  3. Making assumptions about the intentions of others
  4. Jumping to conclusions without having all the information

How people respond to conflict tends to fall within one of the following five categories:

  1. Collaborating- two people coming together to come up with the best solution
  2. Competing- two people who each have their own idea and want things done their way
  3. Compromising- two people have ideas and they meet in the middle ground between both ideas so each person gets something that they wanted
  4. Accommodating- one person has an idea but the other person has a different idea and someone decides to go along with the other’s person’s idea to solve the conflict
  5. Avoiding- two people have a conflict and one person chooses not to respond to the conflict and there is no solution. Perhaps the project is put on hold or doesn’t move forward

There is no right or wrong approach to resolving conflict and often people will use the approach they feel suits the situation. For example, if this issue is one where the other person doesn’t necessarily have much of a stake in the matter and just wants the project to be completed, they may choose to accommodate and let the other person’s idea prevail. If there is a project which has a loose timeline, then the avoiding style may be appropriate until both parties have had time to consider the other’s view or even to have a cooling off period.

One thing to look out for as a manager is if you have an employee who constantly uses the competing style and is never willing to back down or compromise.  If left unchecked, this can create interpersonal issues in the workplace. This is a time where it may be appropriate to have a discussion with that employee and set expectations or discuss their performance and the impacts it has on the workplace.

When you are listening to issues of conflict or mediating conflict, it’s important to watch for the following and keep an open mind:

  1. In order to solve the issue, both parties involved have to be open to the message and be willing to work together towards a solution
  2. As the person mediating, it’s important for you to listen for the context and be aware of others’ reactions
  3. You can summarize the parties’ points and ask the two to describe the impact that the conflict has had upon them
  4. You can clarify by asking probing questions
  5. If the two parties cannot come to an agreement perhaps you can suggest some alternatives based on what you have heard
  6. Do not give your opinion on the situation until both parties have had a chance to be heard out

Some key things you can do as a manager to assist in solving or avoiding conflict are :

  1. Provide a commitment to your staff that you will be there as a resource if needed
  2. Act as a role model for effective communication or train staff on effective communication (for tips on effective oral communication see the resources below)
  3. Create a culture where collaborating, discussion, candid dialogue/ debate, and feedback are accepted and perhaps even expected. Part of this is having an open door policy

Lastly, if you are mediating an employee conflict, ensure that you document this as appropriate. For example, if this is a simple issue which can be resolved through discussion and you are just there to help two individuals come to an agreement, you may wish to listen and then jot down some notes once the two have left with the key points of the meeting and have your own file on interpersonal issues which doesn’t go in the employee files. This way you can see if patterns emerge between specific employees. If the issue is more severe, you may wish to have someone in the room taking notes, as appropriate, or taking your own notes throughout, catching key words and discussion so that if the issue escalates, you have documentation to move forward with potential investigations and can show the steps the company took to de-escalate (due diligence). You may wish to email the two parties after the meeting concludes confirming the decision/ outcome which was agreed to in this meeting as appropriate. Use your own judgement on the best/ most reasonable documentation choice given the circumstance.

Resources

Oral communication tip sheet
Working with others tip sheet

Alicia Cachia & Tabitha Keast
HR Specialist

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