How to engage the energy lost to staff dust-ups

Stress-fuelled conflict is increasing and, ultimately, warring staff are the problem of the business, writes Belinda Williams.

Stress-fuelled conflict is increasing and, ultimately, warring staff are the problem of the business, writes Belinda Williams.

There's nothing more frustrating for small-business owners with huge financial responsibilities than to be dragged into what are perceived as the petty squabbles of feuding staff. But it's just that unsympathetic attitude that can prolong a stand-off.

A common cause of workplace tiffs is unmanaged stress, psychologist Rebecca Henshall says.

The senior consultant with relationships coaching service LifeWorks says a lack of resilience has also contributed to an influx of calls to the counselling service.

"LifeWorks is seeing more evidence of stress-fuelled conflicts in the workplace, as people often manage stress by withdrawing or communicating inappropriately with colleagues [that is, too harshly]," Henshall says.

"People's inability to bounce back after setbacks and difficulty in remaining optimistic at work is having an impact on workplace relationships and culture.

"This in turn affects productivity and performance ... LifeWorks has seen a surge of interest from organisations wishing to provide workshops to build resilience in the workplace in the past 12 months."

Henshall says misunderstandings and poor communication styles are also sources of angst among co-workers. "Often we hear the saying, 'Oh, that's just the way Mick talks, you'll get used to it', or 'Geraldine is always like that in the morning, we just avoid her until after lunch'.

"In these situations, bad habits of communication have allowed someone to behave in a way that's unproductive," she says.

Lack of role clarity or poor management can lead to staff division, Henshall says.

"When there is a lack of clarity, small issues can be blown out of proportion. For example, when the owner or manager takes leave, who has designated authority for which aspects of the business in their absence?"

Problematic behaviour that goes uncorrected can lead to low morale and a "why bother?" attitude among staff, Henshall says.

"When there is limited or no performance management or constructive feedback in the workplace, this will affect the whole team, who feel like they carry the poor performers," she says. "This is a sure way to create conflict between employees in the workplace."

You can't help who you're drawn to, but it's generally not a good idea to become mates with a subordinate, Henshall says.

"To be friendly, yes, to be friends - no," she says. "The perception of favourites is common in the workplace and being friends with some employees and not others will often lead to allegations of preferential treatment, which in turn contributes to low morale and increased negative gossip.

"Respect for the role can also be compromised when managers become too friendly with staff, and lead to problems with authority and leadership. Perhaps one of the biggest issues is when a manager needs to performance manage an employee who is their friend.

"This can lead to compromise and high emotion, and affects work and personal life for them both."

The popularity of team-building providers has grown as more organisations look externally for ways to boost workplace morale. Corporate Challenge director Dwain Richardson has delivered more than 1000 events. He says many participants are unaware of colleagues' strengths and weaknesses.

"Periodically we will notice or be made aware by managers about some unease between staff on the event," Richardson says. "The best ice-breaker activities are those that get the individuals working closely in a fun, relaxed environment."

One of the benefits of team building is to gain a "greater understanding of each other".

He says colleagues are more likely to bond outside their work environment, where the "hierarchical nature of the workplace is removed".

"I regularly advise managers to observe these differences, as it's a valuable way of identifying strengths in your team that are not always seen in the workplace," Richardson says.

Many small and medium enterprises are seeking expert HR advice on managing feuding staff, People Dynamics director Laura Birley says. "It is one of the biggest areas we deal with," she says.

"An attitude of ... 'that is just the way such and such is' can lead to many bigger problems. Unfortunately these issues rarely go away themselves and require management involvement for solutions to be reached."

People with little HR expertise need to tread carefully when handling staff disputes. Birley says businesses often think they will save money by tackling HR themselves, yet the hidden costs associated with unfair dismissal, unsatisfactory contracts, and sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination claims are very real.

"For a small to medium-size business, claims such as these could cripple the company financially, yet they can often be easily avoided. Another issue is time. With the nature of small business being 'all hands on deck', the responsibility of HR can absorb the time of staff whose days can be better spent elsewhere."

Grappling with workplace gripes

People Dynamics'

Laura Birley's tips:

Set expectations: have a robust set of policies and procedures in line with industrial relations and occupational health and safety legislation.

Have managers take responsibility for their staff and empower them to handle tough situations; provide training and support.

Do not underestimate how much mediation, particularly from a third party, can assist in reaching resolutions. It is important parties feel they have been given the opportunity to air grievances before moving to a solution.

Document all meetings held with staff.

LifeWorks' Rebecca

Henshall's tips:

Act quickly: resolve issues when they are small before they escalate into something bigger and damaging to the whole organisational culture.

Be fair, act neutrally and refrain from expressing blame or judgment.

Only make a decision if you are not able to support the staff to come to their own agreement.

If your best intentions and processes don't resolve the feud then seek professional advice.

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