“How Did We Get to This Point?” (Managing Conflict)

Photo by Jonathan Billinger

The client who asked me this question was an intelligent and caring manager. She sounded genuinely bewildered, and she wanted to know how things had deteriorated between her division and the other team. She was disconcerted that things had “gone off the rails” in such a short time.

And so I reviewed the history with her. There was an incident – angry words from one staff member to another. (The details are unimportant. I’ll call the perpetrator “Bob” and the person on the receiving end “Sally.”) The result was that Sally felt disrespected and hurt. Others in the company either witnessed the incident or heard about it from witnesses. Sally discussed the matter with the company’s HR person, but as far as she knew, no action was taken.

What was the result? What messages did the company send? Bob got the message that his angry outburst was acceptable workplace behavior. Sally got the message that it was OK that she was disrespected, and that even if she stood up for herself and raised a concern, nothing would happen. Others in the company who knew about the incident got the message that disrespectful behavior was tolerated, and that there was no point in going to HR.

What happened next was easy to predict. People who liked Sally (and there were many) felt indignation on her behalf and resentment both towards Bob and towards management for their failure to respond. People who liked Bob felt conflicted because they couldn’t approve of how he had behaved. Everyone was uncomfortable. Nobody wanted to discuss the incident so it became the “elephant in the room.” Bob and Sally had to work together on a regular basis, and the tension between them never went away. Soon that tension had infected others in both departments, and small incidents – the sorts of things that would have been brushed aside in the past – took on outsize importance.

Of course, while my client had been in the middle of the conflict between her division and Bob’s division, she couldn’t see its causal history. She could only see the tension and the effect it was having on workplace relations and on productivity. Once we had gone through the history together, she could easily see where she could have acted differently. Things got to a point she regretted, but I don’t think she will let things get out of hand again.