Managing Conflict in Your Business

In the kitchen and bath industry, as in many industries, the difference between success and failure is often determined by how well a business manages the conflicts it encounters.

Conflict among employees in the work environment will usually lead to morale problems if not dealt with in a timely manner. This doesn't mean management must immediately jump in to resolve such conflicts, but festering issues should not be ignored indefinitely.

Conflict is most often discussed in a negative context, yet conflict can often result in some positive effects, as well. This month's column will look at the sources of conflict within a kitchen and bath firm, how these conflicts develop and ways they can be channeled to produce positive results.

Sources of conflict
Conflict arises when two individuals or groups form different opinions of how something should be done or handled. This can be about anything from the type of coffee to brew in the lunch room to whether to lien a client's project. Conflict can also arise when an individual or group feels unfairly treated by management. Very often, a single individual will take it upon him or herself to challenge a company's policy with regard to some particular issue he or she disagrees with.

The most destructive type of conflict arises when one individual attempts to create conflict between other employees. This type of behavior is not uncommon in larger organizations, and is usually found where the lines of communication are weak between departments and with management. This kind of conflict tends to be fueled by gossip and lack of openness about policies and issues which affect employees.

Another source of conflict involves significant changes that occur to the business or department. This could happen if business is slow and staff reductions become necessary, or if business increases rapidly and the existing staff is required to carry extra work, or staff is added. Any change in the management of a company will usually result in some level of conflict. In fact, any change within the organization which changes the basic "pecking order" will usually result in some tension and often conflict.

Conflict development
Conflict usually begins innocently enough as a simple misunderstanding or disagreement, often about something relatively insignificant. It's also very often the result of a comment or action which is misinterpreted and given a meaning or significance far beyond what was ever intended. On the other hand, sometimes things are said or done to intentionally produce conflict.

Once initiated, a conflict will remain a source of tension until it is dealt with. The perceived slight or insult will most often result in some sort of retaliation from the injured party. In addition, it often produces a considerable amount of conversation among employees as each person relates his or her side of the story to others.

At this point, lines have been drawn and even innocent comments can add fuel to the fire. It's possible for this to divide the staff into two camps, causing cooperation to break down entirely. While this "doomsday" scenario is not necessarily the outcome of every minor conflict, it's entirely possible that such a progression can occur.

Dealing with conflict
Most businesses (or departments) operate much like a family. The management, like a parent, sets rules, rewards achievement, punishes misconduct and mediates disputes. As with most families, you will usually see management stand back and allow the parties in a particular dispute to try to settle things themselves, often suggesting that they try to "talk things through."

The best way to avoid conflicts over serious issues with employees is to have a well-thought-out company policy in a written form. This ensures that all employees are treated equally and fairly. If employees feel that certain individuals are receiving special treatment, the result is likely to be resentment and conflict that can disrupt your business and hurt your productivity.

When dealing with conflict among employees and/or departments, it's important to remember that the true source of the conflict is not always the issue which seems to be the current point of contention. When a string of minor conflicts arise, look for an underlying cause, which may or may not lie within your organization. If the root of the problem is something outside of the work environment, you probably won't be in a position to deal directly with it, but it's still important to discuss the situation with the employees involved to attempt to correct the impact it's having on their work and other employees.

Conflict, and the sagging morale that comes with it, is like a snowball. It can start out small, but if it's allowed to roll around your organization without being dealt with, it can grow into a serious problem. While conflicts are inevitable, they need to be watched and defused as quickly as possible, preferably between the individuals involved. But if this doesn't seem to be happening, intervention by management is necessary.

Be especially careful that your own actions as a manager are not producing the very conflict you're trying to avoid. If the conflict is between the employee and management, it's imperative that it be addressed directly and resolved. Employees who feel that they have been treated unfairly by the company will often spend a great deal of time sharing their feelings with other employees, and the resulting impact on morale can be devastating, particularly for a small business.

Sometimes, the circumstances of the economy will produce tensions within your business which result in uncertainty and tension among your employees. If business slows, and it becomes apparent that you will have to reduce staff, morale will be impacted and tensions will rise. It's important in all cases where uncertainty about the future of the business is concerned to communicate openly with your employees about your intentions and actions, even if the news is not pleasant. Employee imaginations and the "rumor mill" can exaggerate the bad news substantially.

Make sure that your organization works on communication among its members. Take time to share pleasant times that allow people to get to know each other on a personal basis. Building a sense of genuine concern for each other among the members of your team will help keep minor conflicts from snowballing.