At my agency, we have a pretty simple philosophy about conflict between employees: Do your best to work it out yourselves before you bring it to your supervisor. Most of the conflicts I learn of are from people who have not taken this step. One of the things I've also learned is that if you make your employees go through this step first, there is much less conflict to deal with. People are not as sensitive if they have to deal with the problem themselves.
Another key to working out conflict is to never do it without all concerned parties present. If it wasn't so serious, it would be humorous how many times people want a conflict mediated without having to be present. It's also not surprising how stories change from the first, private version, to the one told in the presence of witnesses. Make people get together and more times than not they will behave like the adults they are supposed to be.
We all have days when we don't feel well. All of the different parts of our lives can affect our way of handling a situation. Have you ever snapped at someone for a mild infraction or no infraction at all? After that overreaction, you probably apologized, knowing that it was an overreaction. If you are a good teammate, you will forgive others who overreact. By using that old adage of "walking in someone else's shoes for a couple of days," you can give the benefit of the doubt to others' behavior rather than escalate the conflict. You may even want to be a friend and ask if there is something you can do to help the colleague who just used you as a tackling dummy.
With differences in roles as well as differences in personalities that make up an agency, it is not uncommon to have recurring causes of conflict. We can lack the sensitivity for our teammates' needs if we aren't privy to what they have to do for a living.
Conflict can sap the strength from an organization very quickly. It's unfortunate because it's easily avoidable. Educate your employees on the aspects and difficulties of everyone's job. Remember, conflicts frequently arise from a lack of empathy or sensitivity to one another's situations. Make conflict resolution a part of your employees' training. Most important, train yourself. As an example of good conflict resolution, you will have a critical impact on the harmony of your work environment.
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Bart Cleveland is partner, creative director, McKee Wallwork Cleveland, Albuquerque, N.M. He also blogs at AdAge.com's Small Agency Diary.