One Approach to Managing Conflict

Sometimes in organizations the conflict between employees and management becomes so great that it is difficult to see a solution. I was faced with such a situation recently.

A department was in turmoil.  The troubles had started years ago, caused by a Director with a very negative and dictatorial management style.  The Director eventually left the company, but that did not resolve the situation.   Her right hand person was promoted into the job.  From the employee standpoint, the new person was identified with the former Director, so employees saw it as a continuation of the past.

Over the last few years, the situation deteriorated.  One individual in particular was very unhappy, and she wrote a letter to senior management detailing her complaints.  She indicated that most other employees shared her views.   Senior management decided it was time to address these issues.  They asked me to confidentially interview each employee in the department to try to understand exactly what was going on.

I did this and discovered that there were in fact two “camps” within the department.  One was very unhappy; the other less so.   But the conflicts and unhappiness had gone on for so long that everyone seemed very tired and discouraged.  They just wanted all the negative stuff to be over.  However, it was difficult to see a clear way to achieve this.

Whatever they decided to do, I believed it was important to convey that any real solution must involve mutual actions of employees and management.   Expecting either employees or management to “fix” everything was simply not going to work.  Everyone had a role in the solution.

I suggested the department create a list of “agreements” that each employee in the department would sign up to—a sort of contract.  These agreements would address all the areas of conflict.   This document would discuss what employees agree to do and what management agrees to do to address these issues so that things work better in the future.

This department is moving ahead with this approach.  I do not know if it will be successful.  But sometimes situations become so acrimonious that the only approach is to try to get everyone to chip in and be part of the solution.   The challenge they are facing is a departmental challenge, and only the entire department can solve it. I f they can put the past to rest, and start with a clean slate backed by their “contract” to each other, I believe they can be successful.

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