Strategies to Handle Workplace Conflict

“Jack, the people issues are just getting to be too much,” the foreman said. “If it’s not the landowners and members of the public throwing fits and coming into the work zones, it’s our own people getting into conflicts. At best it’s a distraction that steals our focus, and at it’s worst it becomes violent.”

The superintendent replied to the foreman, “I hear you, Billy. Let’s come up with a plan on how to deal with this.”

Three Important Questions

In this month’s Tailgate, we’re going to review answers to three important questions related to workplace conflict and violence, and then we’ll look at how to deal with three areas of conflict in ways that lead to the best possible outcome based on the situation.

Question 1: How can landowners and members of the public become a problem?

  • Getting in the way: They can enter our work sites and put themselves and our workers in danger.
  • Distracting workers: Crews being on constant lookout for unauthorized people in the work area can steal our focus.
  • Property damage: Landowners and members of the public can damage our equipment in protest of our presence on the project.
  • Threats of violence: On rare occasions, threats are made to our workers.

Question 2: What can we do about problematic landowners and members of the public?

  • For non-violent issues:
    1. Stop work in the area if anyone is in danger.
    2. Respectfully speak to the problematic person to advise them of the issue.
    3. Contact the appropriate client representative about the issue.
    4. Return to work when it’s safe to do so.
  • For threats-of-violence issues:
    1. Stop work in the area.
    2. Respectfully advise the problematic person that you are securing your operation and leaving the area.
    3. Secure the operation and equipment and get out of Dodge.
    4. Contact the appropriate client representative about the issue and ask them to contact the police.
    5. Return to work when it’s safe to do so, preferably with a police presence.

Question 3: Why is worker-to-worker conflict resolution important?

Unsettled worker-to-worker conflict can:

  • Momentarily steal our thoughts as we think about the issue.
  • Distract us from our work by getting us all riled up, which can make us mentally and emotionally unfit for duty and thus an operationally inefficient hazard to ourselves and everyone around us.
  • Create an environment that causes good workers to leave, and those who remain will recruit even more miserable workers.
  • Lead to physical violence.

Addressing Areas of Conflict

All of the situations noted above are avoidable, so now let’s look at how to address three sources of workplace conflict in ways that help lead to the best possible outcome.

  1. Poor Communication
  • Identify the issues by listening for key phrases such as, “I thought you wanted this,” “I told you to do it like this – not like that” and “No one told me the plan had changed.”
  • Prevent the issues by being clear and specific, by checking for understanding by asking questions before beginning work, and by observing and addressing potential issues during work.
  • Fix the issues by:
    • Stopping work in the affected area.
    • Taking a breath and calming down.
    • Focusing on the solution, not the issue.
    • Clarifying the expectations/needs.
  1. Frustration
  • Identify the issues – such as lack of resources and unreasonable expectations – by listening for key phrases such as, “Hey, I need that!” and “There’s no way we can do that, but no one will listen to me” and “I just expect more of myself.”
  • Prevent the issues by being realistic and adjusting the job plan when there isn’t enough time, staff, equipment or materials; by not imposing unrealistic expectations on ourselves; and by being clear and specific.
  • Fix the issues by:
    • Stopping work in the affected area.
    • Taking a breath and calming down.
    • Focusing on the solution, not the issue.
    • Clarifying the expectations.
    • Developing a joint plan for resources.
  1. Differences of Personalities and Values
  • Identify the issues by listening for key phrases such as, “She’s always yelling,” “He’s too sensitive,” “He just cares about getting home to his family” and “She’s just waiting for 5 p.m. somewhere.”
  • Prevent the issues by accepting the fact that we’re a family, and every family has a “Cousin Eddie” who we need to deal with to succeed; by getting rid of miserable people and their cancerous attitudes; by putting together workers with similar personalities and values when possible; and by filtering through others’ words and tones to find out why they’re upset.
  • Fix the issues by:
    • Stopping work in the affected area.
    • Taking a breath and calming down.
    • Focusing on the solution, not the issue.
    • Rearranging the work crews, if needed.
    • Cutting out cancerous attitudes.

In summary, the common denominators for successfully handling workplace conflict are stopping work, taking a breath, calming down and focusing on the solution.

About the Author: Jesse Hardy, CSP, CIT, CUSP, is executive vice president of health, safety, environment and quality for Ferrovial Services (www.ferrovial.com).

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