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Employee Assistance Programs and Helping Employee Clients Resolve Coworker Conflicts

Posted by Daniel A. Feerst, BSW, MSW, LISW-CP on

Determination by management is everything when managing unwanted employee behaviors. Determination means management is willing to make a change in order to get to the goal.

With regard to coworker conflicts, the first rule of management must be to accept this truism despite initial denial: Employees aren't being paid to remain in conflict. 

Alcoholics are like employees in conflict. Alcoholics do not want to get sober because drinking not only feels good, it seems to work so well in coping with life. Treatment is too much of a pain in the ass and requires too much change. The lack of leverage and its product, a desire for change, prevents the alcoholic from considering a different path to functional living via treatment. All of us are a slave to this same dynamic. We have to really want change in order for something like treatment to work. (Notice the operative word is change, not treatment.)

Employees in long-term, personality-style driven conflicts do not want to resolve their issues if it means each one changing the way they communicate or manage the relationship. They have the capacity, of course, to change, but the leverage to do so is not there.

All of this means one thing: The EAP must enlist the leverage. This happens to be the real potential of disciplinary consequences or highly undesirable, authority-imposed administrative sanctions or decisions that will produce the energy necessary to motivate each of the warring employees to make the changes necessary to create their more harmonious relationship.

Realize that coworker conflicts represent high risk to organizations. Conflicts can lead to productivity drops, morale problems, absenteeism in the form of mental health days taken (aka "the hell with it, I'm staying home tomorrow."), and yes, workplace violence. It is easy to forget these real, looming, and peripheral concerns when conflicts in the workplace are labeled as simply, "Mary and Susan's ongoing personality conflict."

Applying EAP theory and application to conflict resolution, the EA professional should view a personality conflict with this definition: A personality conflict is a disruptive, chronic relationship dynamic reinforced over time by management’s refusal or inability to accept it as a disciplinary problem instead of its existence as part of the status quo for which there is not fix.”

Conflict resolution always begins with a confidential full-fledged interview individually with each employee involved in the conflict. This puts the EAP in alignment of trust with each employee and the EAP will then know more than anyone about the scope of conflict, it depth, hidden meaning, like solution, or other issues outside the awareness of either employee. This is a lot of influence the EAP will use to counsel each employee toward the goal of resolving the conflict.

Note: Rarely if ever, have I had to meet with employees together to resolve conflicts. In fact, I totally discourage it in the workplace. The key reason: It makes change optional and sends a message of volunteerism as a dynamic which dramatically supplants management’s ability to insist on change. This dynamic is similar to not meeting with a supervisor and employee to resolve a personality conflict. It is completely inappropriate in the employment setting and makes change for the employee, optional.

If change is not forthcoming, and conflict between two employees appears to be chronic, then it is time to ask the participants to get leverage on themselves. They are asked to pull in the leverage of authority and accountability into the picture. This means agreeing to pull management into the picture (if management is not already involved) to form an agreement and to have management hold them each accountable for resolving the conflict. In other words, they pass the ball to management to demand change. This is where it should be—squarely in management’s lap.

Although a manager may have abdicated his or responsibility, employee conflicts are management's business. This is the most critical message of this EAP post. These are not things that management should tolerate, but in fact many do because they believe they have no choice but to accept the conflict or they have no idea what to do about it. Some personality conflicts can last for years under this abdication management model.

Asking employees to pull management into the leveraged position of requiring resolution almost always works like a charm. This is because each employee in conflict believes he or she is more "correct" and "righteous" than the other. They suddenly become excited to get management seeing the conflict up close so "the other guy" can finally be observed as the culprit. How nice.

What you will notice by employing this strategy, (the steps of which are described below,) is that the conflict resolves itself temporarily, but nearly overnight.

Each employee attempts to outdo the other to see who can appear less pathological. This is serious entertainment and instructive for employee assistance professionals, and presents a great learning opportunity for the EAP newbie.

The approach described above causes each employee to become amenable to reasonable changes he or she must make in order to satisfy management’s requirement that the conflict end. So, the dynamic changes instantly when accountability is inserted like a hypodermic needle into the conflict. The EAP then goes to work with each employee individually—not as couple. (The rationale here is associated with each making personal changes.)

Workplace conflict often continues because no incentive (or penalty) motivates compromise, personal change, or an earnest search for a solution. An agreement between coworkers that puts each on the line, with the supervisor holding each accountable, is powerful and critical for lasting change.

To employ this strategy, ask the two employee-clients to agree to meet with management and explain their ongoing conflict. Have each one sign a release so the EAP can speak with the manager first. The EAP will only say that “These employees have signed a release for me to tell you that they are attempting to resolve their conflict by having you absolutely require change as an accountability mechanism to provide the leverage necessary to break the chronic nature of their problem.”

It is extremely unlikely that the supervisor will be aware of the ongoing conflict between the two employees. It is extremely unlikely that the supervisor won’t think this is a great approach. The supervisor will also feel relief that action is now being taken. (Employee Assistance Programs get big credit for these sorts of things.) The supervisors will also understand very quickly exactly what this strategy is all about and will quickly insert him or herself into the role of “appropriate, tough love, hard-ass” to help make it all work.

As mentioned: Have the employees make an appointment with the supervisor after the EAP makes contact with the above statement for a short consult.

The supervisor may also become a client in this process by way of self referral to receive consultative guidance on making the strategy work. This includes guidance on future accountability measures.

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