In most organizations, for those employees who excel at their jobs – (i.e. they are great litigators, great classroom teachers, excellent researchers or practitioners) the standard career progression stream is to move up the hierarchy into management. However the ‘reward’ too frequently sets the star employee up to fail.
The skills and aptitudes required to succeed as a ‘practitioner’ in the courtroom, the classroom, the operating room or the laboratory are rarely the same skills that make for a good manager or a good administrator. Nor are these skills taught as part of the education programs for scientists, lawyers, doctors, mechanics or other professionals and trades. And comprehensive management development programs are becoming increasingly rare.
Employees have high expectations of their managers, and lack of management knowledge, skills and ability to create a healthy and productive work environment. When a manager is not able to achieve this, the manager can expect conflict with the employees.
As a mediator specializing in organizational / workplace conflicts, many of the cases I have worked with in the past 20+ years involve conflicts between employees and managers. Management style and lack of skill in managing people are common issues that arise in discussions with staff. Frequently, the manager themselves will identify that they are struggling and uncomfortable in the role of manager. As one senior manager said “I miss my previous job – I was excellent at it and people respected me. Here I feel totally unprepared and out of my league and I’m starting to hate coming to work. And my employees are just as unhappy”.
Is this a new phenomenon?
One of the common problems facing many new managers is that as budgets becoming increasingly tight, management development programs, training, mentoring and professional development are often some of the first areas to be cut. This can leave new managers essentially to fend for themselves with minimal training in how to supervise people effectively, resolve conflict, engage cooperation and manage the wide variety of administrative tasks they now face daily.
Cutting training and professional development can seem to be a logical choice. In the short term, people seem able to manage, and longer term implications haven’t kicked in yet. However, the lack of ongoing solid investment in professional development and skill building in the management cohort can have serious implications in the medium and long-term. As frustration on the part of employees mounts, the level of distraction increases as employees spend increasing amounts of time focusing on what is not working, the negative impact of poor management, productivity decreases, absenteeism and turnover rates increase, and the risk of harassment, human rights and Bill 168 (Ontario Workplace Violence legislation) complaints increases. Grievances will also increase in unionized environments. And the tangible and intangible costs to you as an employer risk increasing significantly.
Take, for example, an escalating conflict between the manager and an employee who is alleging that the manager has failed to address issues of workplace bullying or inter-employee conflict. In Canada, as an employer you have a legal obligation to provide a workplace free of harassment and discrimination… yet you may have managers and staff who are putting that legal requirement in jeopardy – not because they have any level of malicious intent, but rather because they are unaware of how to manage the situation effectively and in many cases oblivious to the impact their actions and choices are having on their staff.
However, oblivious or malicious, if the behaviour constitutes bullying, harassment or discrimination, or is creating conflict with staff, it has to be addressed. It is critical to be cautious with deciding there is malicious intent. As human beings we are quick to decide that someone is just nasty and malicious because of the severity of the impact we have experienced… but impact alone is not enough. Determining intent needs to be done carefully and objectively. We assess and coach managers and staff whose behaviour is inappropriate – and for the vast majority when they become aware of the impact of their choices on others they are shocked as it is not congruent with how they have viewed their actions or themselves. At that point the potential for change is excellent if the manager is provided with solid coaching, training and mentoring to learn more constructive ways of exercising their managerial authority.
It is also critical that employees receive training as well. They need to know what behaviour is acceptable (and expected). They also benefit from skill development, training, and the availability of different recourse options they can use when needed. Many inter-staff conflicts are created by the situations in which employees find themselves – tight deadlines, heavy workloads, limited resources ($$, equipment and people). When staff members have the training to recognize the warning indicators and the skills to be able to resolve the issues before they escalate into full-blown conflicts the resolution of the situation is typically fast and effective. Conflicts that staff members are unable to resolve can be addressed quickly and effectively through the recourse options (mediation, management intervention, coaching etc) available to them when the employer has a well-designed conflict management process in place. This ensures that the manager is only required to get involved in the more serious issues and the level of noise and distraction caused by conflict in the workplace is minimized.
Training and professional development is an investment in creating a skilled work force. As employers we want loyalty from our employees. It’s a two-way street… employees give loyalty when they feel that their employer and managers care about them and are willing to invest in their professional development and happiness at work.
The Conflict Resolution Workout:
Think of a situation that escalated unnecessarily into a major conflict:
1. What were the key decision points where each of the players could have made a different choice that would have changed the outcome? Please focus equally on ALL players (including you if you had a role) not just on the individual(s) you believe caused the problem.
2. What skills were people lacking that might have helped in this situation?
3. What training would be helpful to give people more skills to avoid similar escalation in the future?
4. What influence do you have to help create a healthier approach to building skills in Executives? Managers? Employees? Union representatives? HR?
5. How can you build a business case to initiate changes?
Ruth Sirman is a mediator and organizational conflict consultant who has been helping organizations turn toxic workplaces into healthier working environments since 1996. She is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer and mediator / consultant who has helped hundreds of workplaces and thousands of people regain the joy in going to work! For more information – www.canmediate.com
“I worked in a workplace that spiraled out of control. Ruth works tirelessly to get results. She gained everybody’s trust and gave us the tools to be successful. It’s unbelievable the difference in the workplace. People now love to come to work. I’ve been with this company 35 years and I’ve never seen anybody do what Ruth has empowered people to do.” A Miller, BCWS