“In like a lion, out like a lamb”, is a popular figure of speech for March’s sometime turbulent weather. It can also be a parallel for the resolution process between people in conflict. Conflict can come in all shapes and sizes. Conflict can be scary, frustrating, distracting, but it can also be a little interesting, which is why conflict is an essential element to storytelling. Without conflict you have little to nothing to draw the reader/viewer into your story. As movie-viewers, we like to see the cause and effect of a tale’s conflict play out until it’s (hopefully) satisfying conclusion where the aforementioned conflict is resolved. Our lives are not movies though, and as such we like to keep drama to a minimum as resolving conflict in reality is no easy matter. Try as we might to keep conflict out of our daily lives it does not always work out this way. MINES would like to present a few workplace conflict stories of our own and with the help of our CEO, Dr. Robert Mines, explore the root causes and possible paths to resolution.
# 1: Couple Communication
An unnamed couple who lived in the mountains were having a typical marital discord one frosty evening; one of those age-old repetitive themes that just seemed to come back up and go nowhere. It was going nowhere – not a shining example of good communication and useful conflict resolution skills. Things heated up enough inside that the wife of the couple stormed out into the cold –who knows – perhaps to cool off. The frustrated husband was at wits end at the stalemate and impenetrable wall. He decided there was no recourse but desperate measures…and that desperate measure came in a flash. He quickly removed every stitch of clothing… every stitch. He emerged onto the icy porch where she sat shivering and steaming on the front porch swing. He sat next to her with appropriate distance and let her know he wasn’t returning inside until they had dealt with the issue. Fortunately for him, instead of bolting back inside she just had to laugh. Laughter melts so many walls. Disaster averted – one for the record books. Not recommended for Mediation 101!
You have to love the partner’s creativity, risk–taking, and the wife’s sense of humor! Sometimes a pattern interrupt is genius in getting attention and helping all parties shift off of their position. We all have a narrative story we bring to our relationships. We have a set of expectations regarding how the other person should act. When the narrative gets played out or the beliefs/expectations are violated, we have a problem. The art is to do what this couple did and keep the communication open and alive. Frostbite is contraindicated! Keep it warm!
# 2: Employee Friction
Employee was toxic in the sense the he gossiped about others, would pit colleagues against each other behind their backs, wasted time talking rather than doing his work, and would think one employee was the best ever and then be angry with them when they disagreed on an issue. The employee was transferred from department to department with the same results. Finally the manager of the employee’s current supervisor gave the supervisor direction on how to manage the employee and start progressive discipline. The new supervisor thought he could work with this employee and passively ignored his manager until one day the toxic employee expressed his disappointment in the supervisor and how angry he was at the supervisor. In the meantime the manager and supervisor had one heated exchange after another about the supervisor protecting the employee at the risk of all the other employees who did not want to work with employee anymore.
In this case, a number of psychological factors may be at play. First, the toxic employee has a recurring pattern that continues over time and is disruptive in relationship after relationship. The worst case would be an employee who had personality disorder qualities (if not a full blown diagnosis). The prognosis for this type of employee is poor even with management interventions or psychotherapy. Management is best to cut their losses and move on.
The other element of the story has to do with the manager’s ineffectiveness with her own report, the supervisor. Why did she put up with their behavior pattern? What were their patterns as a manager? What about the supervisor? What was going on with the supervisor that they thought he would be the one who turned this employee around when no other supervisor could? The manager and supervisor’s behavior actually are also diagnostic of the personality disorder qualities of the toxic employee. This type of employee plays a great game of “lets you and she fi.” They manipulate the other parties by playing the grateful victim with the current supervisor, enlisting their help (because, after all, they are the best supervisor they ever had, until they are not) and getting them to right the wrongs committed by the previous supervisor or even better, the manager! In the psychology world, this is called splitting behavior. This employee should be given the opportunity to showcase their gifts and talents elsewhere (also known as the next employer the employee is going to blame).
# 3: Awkward Situation
Allegations were made by an employee subordinate that their manager had made gender and race biased comments about other employees, not the employee making the allegations. HR investigated and found no cause. As part of the investigation the manager found out who made the allegations. The manager was angry and hurt regarding the allegations as he stated they were not true. After being vindicated the manager still had to work with the employee who made the allegations. This conflictual relationship affected the quality of both employee‘s workdays until it was addressed by upper management and HR.
In this case, the trust level of the manager and the employee are at a low point. A conflict resolution meeting is in order. It is similar to marital counseling rather than mediation. In this case, the two would individually meet and discuss their experience, expectations, and hopes for what the work relationship could be and then the facilitator meets with them together to hash out a work agreement (think: every relationship has a contract, just that most are not written down). Then the three meet with the supervisor to get buy in on the agreements. The supervisor follows up monthly with the two for the next 3-6 months to help them stay on course with their contract. In most cases like this, MINES has an 80% success rate. These services are part the EAP contract at no additional charge for the first four hours.
# 4: Full Circle
Working at the hospital there was a team lead who picked on everyone (mostly just trying to get under their skin.) Most of the staff couldn’t stand him but the hospital wouldn’t fire him because his mother was a nurse there. Eventually they promoted him to be a manager at a different hospital. Within the first year he was caught having an inappropriate relationship with one of the janitorial staff. They demoted him but did not fire him. From the last I heard he works in a call center where everyone who he had picked on before now knows what he did.
Oh my, his mother must have been a powerful employee for some informal and unknown reason. Nepotism in an organization can work in many situations. Unfortunately, when it goes bad, it goes really bad. In this case, the human resource issues are a concern, the morale of team members being picked on would be low and diminish their productivity and enjoyment at work, the person in the relationship may have been a subordinate and at risk. If it was consensual, did they break it off or continue to see each other? Finally, what was going on with this person that he stayed at that employer? From a developmental psychology perspective, his behavior has adolescent qualities versus predatory qualities. The employee is a poor candidate for improvement at this point if we assume he is in his in late 20’s/early 30’s. Management needs to also look at its role in enabling this behavior, ignoring sound management principles, following a progressive discipline process, and finally what is going on with their leadership that they keep this cycle going?
Toxic work environments bred by conflict can present a huge risk for organizations. Terminations, expensive lawsuits, lost clients, and more are all possible outcomes of workplace conflict. It is important that managers recognize and act quickly when a potential conflict arises. Organizational training and consultation can help prevent such conflict and if the situation has gone unchecked and conflict is already at full steam, experts can help mediate and help the organization resolve the situation and limit negative consequences. MINES and Associates has a vast amount of experience in this role. If you or your organization has problems with workplace conflict, please contact MINES at 800-873-7138 today, to see how we can help.
To your (and your organization’s) wellbeing,
̶ The MINES Team