Company Doctor: Supervisors should be trained to solve problems in the workplace

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:33 pm

Each day, productivity and profitability are negatively impacted by conflicts that occur in the workplace.
Experts estimate that 65 percent of performance problems result from strained relationships among employees. These conflicts are left to fester and grow because most supervisors are not equipped to handle these interpersonal or interdepartmental disputes.
A recent survey found that 42 percent of a supervisor’s time is spent dealing with workplace conflicts. Few companies have established a supervisor training program. The rewards of such a program are long-term and will only succeed if actively supported by top management.
The benefits of building a conflict resolution training program can be both qualitative and quantitative. One of my clients reduced his annual turnover by 22 percent since implementing a conflict resolution training program. Besides the obvious benefits of improved morale and communication among the employees, there are other long-term benefits such as improved productivity.
In his book, "Conflict Resolution," Daniel Dana identifies eight costs that are incurred by a company that does not control conflict. They are: wasted time, bad decisions, lost employees, unnecessary restructuring, theft and damage, lowered job motivation, lost work time and increased health insurance costs. A program that teaches supervisors and managers how to help employees resolve conflicts can reduce each of these costs. Supervisors and managers can also function as mediators when interdepartmental conflicts arise.
One example of an interdepartmental conflict could be the timing of the introduction of a new product. Let’s say, in this example, that sales and marketing want to beat the competition to market, while manufacturing needs time to properly ramp up and implement the necessary quality controls. In this example, both parties have the same ultimate goal. They wish to satisfy the needs of their customers. The difference in their goals is that manufacturing’s goal is longer term, while sales and marketing is short term. In order to settle this conflict, the leaders of these two groups need to step forward, identify and address their interests in a collaborative manner.
Each party’s needs must be understood to achieve a solution both groups will support. The solution needs to surface within the groups and develop during combined problem-solving sessions. A solution developed in this manner will be more accepted by both management and the rank-and-file because an outside party did not impose it. It now becomes their solution and not someone else’s.
The group leaders, the supervisor or manager, must possess specific skills in order to achieve the goal of establishing a conflict resolution training program. Supervisors and managers can learn communication, mediation and negotiation skills during structured training sessions conducted by experienced
facilitators. These sessions should be spaced out over a period of time to allow the participants to experiment with their new skills.
Let’s examine how the development of each of these skills can help build a culture of conflict resolution.
Emotion is a major component of conflict that should be addressed. Many supervisors tend to remove themselves from the situation when emotion is involved. The trained supervisor confronts the emotion and helps the subordinate deal with the emotion and disconnects it from the identified interest. Once this disconnect is achieved, the subordinate is usually more willing to move towards a compromise, which will aid in reaching an acceptable solution. The same strategy is successful when applied to group conflicts. An effective supervisor needs to be a good listener and have the ability to communicate clearly with each of his or her subordinates. He or she needs to let subordinates vent and identify their interests and the emotions connected to those interests.
Most supervisors are good at motivating their subordinates toward production and performance goals, but not necessarily at resolving conflicts. The key to effective conflict resolution is the ability to stay neutral. The successful neutral supervisor is patient and listens carefully to each side, being sensitive to their interests. At the same time, they are looking for the common ground from which to launch an agreement. In many cases, an individual who supervises both parties in a conflict may not be the best person to aid in the settlement of the conflict. Sometimes it is best to have a neutral supervisor assist the parties rather than one who is their immediate supervisor. This is why a company-wide conflict resolution program is critical. This program will produce the supervisors who are adept at aiding employees in resolving conflicts.
The collaboratively trained supervisor is an important product of the conflict resolution training process. The approach the negotiator takes is critical to achieving a successful outcome. A supervisor who is a win/lose negotiator will not appear as neutral to the parties and will be seen as taking one side or another in the dispute. The overly collaborative supervisor will look for the perfect solution, instead of assisting the parties in finding a workable solution. The training should demonstrate the role of power in the negotiation process and caution supervisors about the risks of using coercive or threat based powers. Supervisors need to realize that their role is to assist the parties in resolving the conflict and not to impose the solution they desire on the parties.

The first step in building the necessary culture is instituting a conflict resolution training program that provides the supervisors and managers with the skill sets they need to successfully resolve workplace conflicts.
Each level of management, including senior management, needs to be trained in conflict resolution techniques. The goal is to resolve conflicts at the lowest level within the company, not at the highest level. This approach will immediately impact the costs associated with workplace conflict. Only conflicts that have a broad impact on the organization should rise to the highest level of the conflict resolution pyramid. This process is designed to free senior management from being involved in the daily conflicts that occur in the workplace.
Once the supervisors and managers are empowered and properly trained, the solutions can be developed by the parties without being imposed by a higher power. In the long term, the employees themselves will learn to mediate their own disputes, further reducing the supervisor’s involvement in the process, as conflict resolution becomes a part of the company’s culture.

Cary Silverstein, MBA, is the president and CEO of Fox Point-based Strategic Management Associates LLC. He can be reached at (414) 352-5140 or at

April 1, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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