A consultant who specializes in resolving workplace conflicts says the No. 1 reason people leave jobs is because of a poor relationship with their immediate supervisor.
Yet another consultant reports that workplace conflicts can consume more than 40 percent of a typical manager's time.
Why can't we get along at work?
With companies paring back on staffing, workers "are being asked to do the work of two or more people, and that puts more pressure on them," said Lisa Maxwell, director of the training institute at the private, not-for-profit National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego.
"Because of the stress in the workplace, they tend to have more conflict."
She doesn't have statistics on the frequency of workplace conflicts, but says they do tend to fall in the same categories year after year: "I'm doing more work than she is" or "I don't think this is fair" or "I'm treated disrespectfully by this person" or "She ignores me" or "She didn't include my input about the project" or maybe "He never listens."
It can happen in a small office or at a major employer; it could be a disagreement among production-line workers or among occupants of the executive suite. Maxwell said she once was called in to address a disagreement between two Ph.D.s who had resorted to using masking tape to designate their separate work areas.
The better scenario, she said, is for managers to get training before a crisis strikes, so they can recognize what's happening and intervene before a masking-tape war breaks out.
Often, a calm conversation can do the trick. Her advice is to bring the employees in, separately first and then together, and follow some simple guidelines:
Don't get straight to the point. Instead, try to start the meeting on a positive note that is also work-related. For example, if the disagreement is about a project they're both working on, ask each how they became involved in the project. That may help ease tension before the conflict is directly addressed.
Listen. Ask an open-ended, general question such as, "Tell me what's going on," then pay attention to what they're saying, intervening only if the conversation turns accusatory or confrontational.
Set a good tone. If you take a thoughtful, constructive approach to the situation, employees will often follow your lead. They want to come across as reasonable, and they also want your approval.
Strive for what Maxwell and her colleagues call SMART solutions, goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed.
The calm, conversational approach is not always easy for managers, she said, because they may see themselves as problem-solvers as well as authority figures. The tendency may be to simply issue edicts, then tell everyone to get back to work.
When two employees have a conflict, though, "the manager needs to include them in the problem-solving."
There will always be tensions in the workplace — the sales manager who is eager to promote a new product while the engineering manager wants to wait until the product has been thoroughly tested, for example.
It is the manager's job, she said, to keep those tensions from becoming a roadblock to productivity. "They both have the same goal — having a successful company."