How do you smooth over employee conflicts?

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It would be wonderful if every workplace ran smoothly all the time, but that isn’t reality. There will be conflicts between employees, and while minor disagreements are inevitable and usually easy to smooth over, longer-term grudges are disruptive, both for employees and for customers who can’t help but notice the chill in the air.

As management, your position shouldn’t be simply a referee who tells the combatants to go back to their respective corners. Even so, you have to be more than just the judge who listens to both sides of the story and makes a decision. Instead, you want to be a mediator, guiding the people involved to come to a truce. From there, you should be periodically looking at the overall “operating temperature” in your store, to help prevent more issues in future.

Be aware of what’s happening in your store. Very few conflicts explode full-blown from the start; most are issues that grow over time. Minor disagreements usually blow over, but follow up later to ensure everything is settled. You’ll want to be proactive if there’s noticeable tension between people, which seldom gets better without intervention.

Watch for inter-department issues. There was likely a fault line between sales and service on the day the very first dealership opened its doors. Salespeople might sense resentment when they bring a customer to the service desk, while service advisors might think they’re being bullied to put that person ahead of their own customers – and in some instances, either suspicion may be correct. Meet up with the service manager regularly to go over any problems either of you may be encountering. It might even be helpful to occasionally get everyone in both departments together for a discussion on the best way to look after all customers.

Look for warning signs. Bantering and occasional venting are normal behaviour. These occasional blow-ups have the potential to worsen, but don’t step in too quickly – you don’t want to look like the playground supervisor. Give people a chance to work out their grievances on their own, and if you are approached, suggest they try to figure it out themselves. Even so, watch the situation to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. Intervene if you notice bullying or gossiping. Those can spread as others take sides, turning the entire department into a toxic environment.

Figure out a plan of action. When there are issues between two people, formulate a strategy before you step in, which can better help you maintain control of the situation. You know these people and can tailor your approach to them, but overall, experts suggest bringing the people involved together from the start. No matter how impartial you think you are (or try to be), people have an inherent tendency to form opinions based on the story they hear first.

We’re back to you being a mediator, not referee. You may have to step in occasionally to shut down interruptions when someone is presenting their side, but the goal of your plan is ultimately for the people involved to come to a solution under your supervision and guidance in the meeting.

Delegate responsibility if it’s the best plan of action. If the issue is with people who work under one of your managers, or if you have an HR manager, have that person speak with them. It’s possible you may ultimately have to step in, but it’s best to start within the department, rather than bypassing those managers and going directly to the “big boss.”

The business always comes first. This of course seems obvious, but personal feelings can sometimes get in the way, especially if one of the people involved is an employee you consider to be a friend. Don’t dismiss issues because you’re uncomfortable disciplining someone who’s become close to you. The initial problem will still be there, and now other employees may be hesitant to approach a boss who “takes sides.”

Always follow up. Once people have talked it out and come to an understanding, give it a couple of days and then do a quick check to be sure the issue actually is resolved and everything has moved forward from there.

Foster an “open-door” attitude with your employees. If you handle issues promptly and fairly, word will get out. Either individually or in a staff meeting, let all your employees know your policy: That not everyone gets along all of the time, and you realize this; that it’s best when people are open with each other and try to work it out on their own; and if that isn’t possible, that your door is always open for those who want to talk about what’s going on. Above all, the focus is on everyone working together, and when they do, the customer experience improves and so does everyone’s success in the business.