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Conflict Mediation

ADMITTEDLY, conflicts at the workplace are inevitable and attempts to ignore or repress them through regulations and power only serve to heighten the anger and make the scenario more destructive. Many managers proudly declare that they have an `open door' policy as far as complaints/ conflicts are concerned. `Walk-in with your complaints, minor or major; we are here to listen to your problems and solve them,' proclaims a notice on the HR executive's cabin door. It seems so caring, so helpful and so considerate, which is fine as a general practice. But, when well-intentioned managers unwittingly step into a conflict too soon, they may actually end up blowing things out of proportion.

As a rule, employees should be encouraged to try and resolve their own problems first before coming to their manager. While you may have good intentions to react and solve your employees' problems for them, it is quite often the incorrect thing to do. They are, after all, responsible adults capable of handling their own affairs and need to be treated in the same way. If you get into the habit of bailing your employees out of every crisis, you will get pushed into playing surrogate parent, and soon have a continuous line of employees outside your door wanting you to take care of that `big bad bully' who upset them! They will only be content to let you take responsibility for resolving every minor issue and will happily judge your performance from the sidelines.

Ideally, managers should use complaints as an opportunity to teach their employees how to handle conflicts, instead of jumping right in and solving the problems for them. When one of your employees comes running to you for help with a conflict, you could offer guidance and help from the sidelines on how to handle the crisis on their own. It is okay to offer suggestions or advice on the approach they could adopt and what they could say to the other person. Encourage him/her to discuss the issue directly with the person(s) concerned. Then, ask the person to report back once they have completed the conversation. This guarantees that they follow through and gives you another opportunity to help them with the next step.

Don't take sides, without first hand information on the circumstances of the conflict. It is quite possible that the complainer may not be an injured innocent he makes himself out to be. Every conflict does have another side to it; hence it would be unwise to act on the basis of a complaint, without thorough investigation of the facts first. Your best strategy is to step out and keep a finger on the pulse of the place. Make it a point to observe the circumstances first hand. Secondary complaints are usually a sign that you are too removed from what is going on.

Anonymous complaints often pose a problem. How does one act on a complaint, when the plaintiff does not have the courage to tackle the issue? If you become the mouthpiece of the anonymous complainer, you could make things worse. The offending party will say, "What do you mean some of my colleagues complained about me? What did they say and who was it?" It's human nature to want to confront the source of complaint, more so, when a complaint is made directly to a superior, instead of having an open discussion with the person concerned. The person will naturally become resentful - it destroys his trust and makes him hostile and suspicious.

People are often reluctant to tackle responsibility head-on, because responsibility translates into accountability. There are cases where people want their complaints to be resolved, but are reluctant to get directly involved. When a person comes to you with a complaint against a co-worker and says, `I have a complaint against X, but don't tell him it was me,' it is quite likely that he does not want to be held accountable for the complaint. Don't jump right in and offer to bear his cross for him. Instead ask the complaining employee, "How would you feel if I told you there were anonymous complaints being lodged against you? Would you want to find out who complained? Would you be receptive and eager to change? Would you be able to continue to trust your team mates?"

Suggest that he or she make an attempt to discuss the problem directly with the other employee with help from you on the sidelines. If things still fail to work out, then you may offer to step in. If they don't feel abandoned on a desert island, plaintiffs may be more willing to take steps to resolve the problem on their own. Encouraging employees to resolve their own problems not only makes them more secure, but it also automatically grooms them for greater responsibility and independence.


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