A few years ago, I arrived for the shift I was covering and before anyone even said, “Hello,” a coworker said, “This morning, Mrs. T. was in the pharmacy and she was freaking out as usual. She was acting like a crazy person. She always does this. She’s insane! I hate dealing with her.”
The story was retold several times throughout the day with embellishments. With each retelling Mrs. T. got louder, more obnoxious, more belligerent, and maybe even taller. It was like the telephone game you would play in school where the original message becomes almost unrecognizable. The entire day had a dark cloud over it. Everyone seemed edgy and cranky. Although Mrs. T. was gone physically, it was like her spirit was haunting the shift.
Why does the angriest, meanest person get to set the tone for the shift? It doesn’t have to be that way. By dealing with conflict in a positive way, you can empower your staff, decrease resentment, squash negative vibes, and have a happier, more peaceful workplace.
Going back to Mrs. T., after listening to what was told (and retold), you would have absolutely no idea what actually happened. You’ve got a clinical diagnosis, a shot at her character, and the effect the interaction had on your employee. You don’t have anything you can use to take care of the problem.
Acknowledge the Impact
Before you can get the information you need to setting the conflict with Mrs. T., you’ll have to acknowledge the impact that negativity had on the employee who interacted with her. Your employee won’t be able to focus on the facts until you acknowledge their feelings, “You were only trying to do your best with Mrs. T. and you got yelled at. That must’ve been frustrating.”
Don’t worry if you don’t get the feeling exactly right. If your employee was angry, hurt, or sad instead of frustrated, they’ll tell you. The important thing here is that you acknowledge their feelings. If you don’t acknowledge the individual’s feelings, your employee may feel the need to justify their anger or frustration. Your employee will keep retelling the story until someone acknowledges how that negatively affected them.
Get the Facts
Once your employee feels heard and cared about, he will be more likely to give you the information that you want. Share that you want to resolve this issue with Mrs. T. You could say, “Can you tell me more about why Mrs. T was upset? Where did this occur? What happened that set her off? What exactly did she say to you?”
When you ask for facts, you’re training your employees to observe more and react less. If they know you are a leader that will resolve conflicts, they’ll be more likely to get you the facts you need to do so. Your employee may need some guidance when telling you what happened. You may have to steer them toward only what can be observed. Think like a journalist. Ask questions that focus on who, what, where, when, and why.
For example, if the employee starts using words like “crazy,” or “insane,” or any other words of judgement, you can gently nudge them back to the facts, “It’s frustrating when people act in a way we think is irrational. We don’t really know what is going on with Mrs. T., so let’s give her the benefit of the doubt. Just tell me what you observed.”
Watch Your Words
It’s also important to watch how you talk about any conflict that has occured. You, as the leader, can set the example. If the employee who dealt with Mrs. T. starts to complain about the interaction, you can add, “Yes, there was an incident this morning. Mrs. T. raised her voice because we had not filled her blood pressure medicine today. She was angry. She said we were incompetent. Rest assured I am going to resolve this situation.” Be careful to only speak about what was observed and avoid character attacks and diagnosis. In this way you are changing how your staff talks about conflict, arguments, and bad interactions. You aren’t stifling discussion, but moving the discussion toward resolution.
Share the Resolution
It may be tempting to just stop talking about it once you’ve resolved the conflict with Mrs. T. You can check out this post for the conflict resolution steps right here. Resist that temptation for two reasons. First, you want your staff to know that you do what you say you’re going to do. You followed up with Mrs. T. Second, sharing the resolution gives you another opportunity to model the behavior you’d like to see with your staff. You can say, “I spoke to Mrs. T. today. I told her that when she yells at the staff and calls us names, it upsets the staff. This makes it hard for us to do our jobs. In my conversation with Mrs. T., I learned that she is struggling financially. What happened the other day pushed her over the edge. She feels bad about her behavior. She has agreed to apologize and has promised to not yell at us or call us names. Does anyone have any questions?”
The staff will notice that you’re a leader that does not pass judgement, gives people the benefit of the doubt, uses empathy in tough situations, and is not afraid to hold someone accountable. This is the kind of leader that puts people at ease.
Peace in the Land
There’s a popular misconception that peace is the absence of conflict. Peace is the resolution of conflict. When you get good at managing conflict and lead by your example, you can create a workplace where people speak with objectivity about negative interactions. Employees will bring problems to you confidently knowing you’ll resolve them. As a result, they will feel empowered by your example to resolve conflicts on their own. This is how you stop negative vibes from ruling the day, decrease resentment, and create a peaceful work environment that everyone can enjoy.