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A Guide for Conflict Resolution

Communication is at the heart of dealing with nearly all sources of conflict

by
Sherri L. Bassner, PhD

Sherri L. Bassner, PhD, obtained her PhD in inorganic chemistry from The Pennsylvania State University in 1988. She began working for Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., in the fall of that...

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Most lab managers will admit that they spend most of their time on personnel issues since the output of the lab is dependent upon lab personnel having the resources and clear direction to deliver for the lab. Since conflict between people in the lab is simply unavoidable, one skill lab managers must develop is the ability to facilitate conflict resolution quickly and effectively. This article will explore reasons conflicts can arise as well as strategies to resolve them.

Why do conflicts arise?

Sources of conflict between lab personnel are many. The approaches to facilitating conflict resolution will vary based on the individuals involved and the depth of the conflict. Many conflicts arise from communication problems or conflicting agendas. The job of the lab manager is to surface communication gaps and misunderstandings and to resolve any true agenda conflicts.

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Each employee will have their own set of goals and career trajectory that they are trying to advance. While one employee may be looking to develop deep technical skills in a given lab section, for example, another employee may be looking to develop basic competency there and then move on to a different lab section or non-lab position. These different agendas can lead to conflict because their approach to their work will be different. The former will think the latter is not careful enough about the science while the latter may feel the former pushes for a level of precision and accuracy beyond the requirements of the project. In reality, the needs of the projects may be very different between the two. 

A very common source of conflict is simply incorrect assumptions around intent. One employee may feel directly targeted by the actions of another when the other employee was completely unaware of the needs of the first individual as well as unaware of the impact of their actions. “He knew I was going to use that instrument today!” is not an uncommon complaint, when in most cases the other employee either didn’t know or forgot the plans of the first employee. Assumptions also cause conflict when there are different interpretations of shared goals. A shared goal of “All instrumentation will be maintained according to the SOP” is an important goal in most labs. However, if one person feels that the last half hour of each day should be focused on instrument maintenance and another, who is trying to complete a project, feels once per week is sufficient, then there will certainly be conflict. Differing habits around cleanliness or organization can also lead to conflict and, at times, can be taken very personally.

Competition over resources can be a conflict flashpoint in many labs. There are never enough instruments to allow every lab employee to work on whatever instrument they’d like whenever they’d like. No matter how many sign-up sheets are in place, the unpredictability of lab work means that conflicts over instrument availability will regularly arise. This problem occurs with other resources as well, such as access to someone with particular skills or shared personnel. Layer this problem with the fact noted above that each employee is working toward their own set of goals and conflict over limited resources can be intense. 

While most of these sources of conflict are unintentional and often arise from communication issues, there are times when conflict is intentional. Some managers purposefully put employees into competition, either to incentivize effort or to determine differing levels of performance. Absolutely do not do this! Pitting employees against each other may drive individual effort, but high-level performance from one individual will never exceed what the lab can accomplish when working together. 

Sometimes conflict can arise because one party simply enjoys the chaos they cause or uses conflict to get ahead. This type of employee has no role in any healthy organization, no matter how much they deliver.

Getting to the root cause of the conflict is both the hardest part of the conflict as well as the most important part.

Strategies to deal with conflict

Communication is at the heart of dealing with almost all sources of conflict. Ideally, conflict management skills would be taught to all employees and they can resolve most conflict themselves. However, often the lab manager must insert themselves to facilitate resolution.

Begin by talking with all parties individually to understand the source of the conflict. Use the same tools that are used for root cause analysis in technical problems. A favorite technique is to employ “The Five Whys.” Asking why something happened multiple times can get from surface manifestations of conflict to the underlying root cause. The conflict may seem to be about, for example, usage of an instrument on a given day. However, by using The Five Whys, you may find the root problem is lack of an effective agreed-upon system in the lab about managing instrument usage or poor communication between the employees about project priorities and timelines. 

Since so much of conflict involves misunderstandings about intent, depersonalizing the conflict by focusing on process can be helpful. As noted above, behaviors are often seen as intentional when, in most cases, the perpetrator had no idea of the impact of their actions or words. Getting to the true root cause of the conflict is both the hardest part of conflict resolution as well as the most important part. People do not typically want to be truthful about a source of conflict from their perspective. However, a lack of understanding of a root cause may lead to a wrong fix. A “solution” to put a sign-up sheet on an instrument completely ineffective if the real problem is due to incorrect usage of the instrument because of poor training.

During these individual discussions, try to get pre-agreement on what each party is willing to do as part of a resolution. Note that all parties need to contribute—conflict is rarely due to the actions of just one individual. Then, bring the parties together to discuss the root cause and the development of a fix. It is important that the lab manager plays the role of facilitator and that those in party to the conflict do most of the talking. The resolution should not be imposed by the manager but developed by the parties in conflict.

The role of the lab manager becomes more active in instances where the conflict is driven mostly by interpretations of shared goals or other direction from leadership, or when goals are in conflict. This means more precise communication from leadership, altering of goals to resolve the conflict, or the need to procure more resources. Regardless, all parties need to embrace better communication among themselves even if a change from management is part of the resolution. No matter how precise strategy and goals are communicated, or how carefully goals are constructed to resolve significant conflicts, or how many resources the lab has access to, if individual employees do not commit to own the importance of their behaviors, then conflict will continue to arise.

Finally, there are simply some employees that work better in isolation. As noted above, a truly disruptive individual needs to be removed. However, some employees can contribute effectively and yet do not need to share much instrumentation or interact much with others. This solution is emphatically not ideal, nor is it universally applicable, but in certain situations isolation may be effective.

Conflict in organizations is unavoidable. Any time you have two or more people working in proximity, you will have conflict. The job of the lab manager is to stay tuned to clues of conflict in the lab and act quickly to resolve it. Get to the root cause of the conflict and work together with all parties to find an agreeable solution. Quick action is critical since the longer conflict festers, the more trust fades. However, quick conflict resolution can leave the lab in a stronger position as trust is reinforced.