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Handling Workplace Conflicts

Handling Workplace Conflicts in the Lab and Beyond

A step-by-step guide to support psychologically-safe work relationships

Mary Ann Baynton

Mary Ann Baynton is the director of strategy and collaboration for Workplace Strategies for Mental Heath. This process is one of many resources available from Workplace Strategies for Mental Health....

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It can be difficult to resolve conflict between employees where either or both have a mental health issue and they need to discuss disagreements face to face. The process may be intimidating or overwhelming for all involved, including you. This article offers an alternative process with these steps:

  • Meet privately with each employee
  • Support them to develop an approach for professional interaction going forward
  • Create an agreement after the meetings to hold them both responsible for the same behaviors as they work together

These are some recommended differences from standard techniques:

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  • Reduce focus on emotion and increase focus on critical thinking
  • Eliminate the need to decide who’s right through hearsay. Focus on future behaviors. Set up a measurable way to hold each accountable or face clear consequences
  • Reduce the humiliation and anger created from hearing the complaints from the other
  • Help each person to feel heard
  • Focus on solutions to help shift employees from defending past behaviors. Instead, they can envision positive future interactions
  • Reduce the likelihood the resolution ends in a truce. Instead, increase the chances the resolution will address the issues and support ongoing professional interaction
  • Build in an approach to address future issues

When you meet privately with each employee, ask the following questions and allow them to give complete answers before moving on. You can uncover many other suggestions or issues by continuing to ask, "And what else?" each time the employee seems to have provided their full answer. This helps you avoid solving one issue only to have another surface in the future. It’s reasonable to allow the individual some time to vent about their situation but avoid agreeing or disagreeing with their perspective. Instead, continually refocus on the questions for potential solutions. The following are the questions in the order they should be asked:

1. What do you need to work professionally with this person?

This conversation should stay focused on the specific, measurable behaviors that will allow the employees to work together. Opinions, assumptions, or judgments may come up, but shouldn’t be part of the agreement. Record all employee suggestions from the meeting so they can be applied equally to both parties. For example, rather than saying, "Joe yells too much," the document could read, "Conversations will be in a calm and clear tone of voice."

2. What will you do differently to contribute to a successful working relationship?

This question focuses on the employee's professional behavior at work and their awareness of how it may impact other people. For example, the employee may say they’re already doing everything they can (and therefore don’t need to do anything differently). The facilitator should ask them to specify what they do now to contribute to a good working relationship. The response should be recorded in a specific and measurable manner as it can also become part of the agreement. The facilitator should also help each employee think about how their own reactions may contribute to the problems or make them worse.

3. How do you believe we should deal with any future issues?

This helps to establish in the agreement a process for resolving future conflict. This should include how issues will be dealt with in the moment. For example, they may tell the manager, resolve the issue on their own, or involve others. Include the consequences if unacceptable behaviors arise again or new ones emerge.

These conversations aren’t easy. Employees can be surprised by their co-worker's allegations. Reiterate the goal of the process—to help them work in a professional, respectful, and healthy manner with their co-worker. Offer available supports, like access to an employee assistance program, if either employee appears overly stressed throughout the process. These tips will help you successfully resolve conflict:

Avoid making promises. Tell both parties every effort will be made to find a solution that makes it easier for them to come to work, do a good job, and leave with energy at the end of the day.

Ensure confidentiality. Never repeat anything either employee has discussed in confidence. Only refer to the agreed-upon solutions.

Preserve the dignity of everyone involved. Ensure the requirements in the agreement are reasonable workplace expectations that apply equally to both parties. They must also be consistent with workplace policies. The agreement should not interfere with work roles and responsibilities as it focuses on personal, respectful communication approaches and interactions.

Focus on defining specific changes in behavior at work. Link approaches to reasonable workplace standards and policies. Try to avoid approaches that focus more on personal characteristics than specific behaviors. For example, ask someone to contribute only positive feedback in team settings and critical feedback only to the supervisor in private. This can be more effective than asking them to "be nicer."

Avoid forced apologies. Explore alternatives. Forced apologies are often requested. They’re rarely effective when they’re not genuine and don’t address specific behavior change in a solution-based way. Suggest a commitment to a change in behavior as a more likely way to get the desired result. Reframe a demand for an apology into a request for a change in behavior.

Ensure you gather responses that are specific and measurable behaviors. Examples include not raising a voice louder than normal conversation level and refraining from sarcastic comments.

Seek voluntary personal commitments to behave differently toward each other. This is usually more sustainable than enforcing behavior changes, even when the change is difficult. In most cases, forced behavior will continue only when it’s being closely managed. This isn’t always possible, but most people believe themselves capable of a civil working relationship.

Manage expectations in the face of unreasonable requests. For example, it would be unreasonable to ask a co-worker to “stop looking unhappy” while experiencing clinical depression. If the issue’s related to a disability rather than to work-related behaviors, and if it causes no serious harm to others, it’s not a reasonable request. Another example is expecting all co-workers will perform at the level of the top performer. This level is often the exception and may not be reasonable for most employees.

Solicit solutions from both employees. Then prepare an agreement that:

  • Keeps language focused on future positive behaviors and solutions
  • Avoids including past negative behaviors or problems
  • Focuses on specific and measurable solutions with dates for follow up
  • Includes, where necessary, any actions you or others will take that are pertinent to the agreement

Write the agreement in inclusive language that honors both employees’ requests and commitments. Ensure it requires each of them to equally adhere to the specific requests made. You could also include the expectation that they’re respectful toward each other and the process itself.

Share the draft agreement privately. Allow each employee to review and offer feedback. It’s ultimately up to the facilitator to decide if any changes will be included. The intention is to have each party committed to the agreement going forward. This is most likely to happen if they feel it allows them to maintain their dignity and self-respect.

Prepare each employee for the review meeting by reminding each of them there’s nothing they need to say unless they want to make a positive comment to contribute to the process. They’ll have already seen and generally agreed to the contents of the document. Read the entire agreement to both and then ask each employee: Will you be able to engage in the behaviors requested in this agreement? Finally, get agreement in writing that if these changes take place, each employee will be able to move forward in a respectful and professional manner. Make sure both employees, regardless of level of authority, understand they’ll be supported in doing so, and held accountable if they don’t follow the agreement.