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Resolving Workplace Conflict

MANAGERS STRIVING TO meet their own department’s goals often must overcome resistance born of competing agendas among staff in other business units, such as HR, accounting, and sales. These managers need to help everyone see that they are really all striving for the same corporate objectives. Essentially, they must succeed at team building. What is needed to resolve pervasive workplace conflicts is some smart decoding to unlock insight and understanding.

The Challenge Security organizations today are faced with inevitable conflicts in team building. These conflicts require creative resolutions that may be outside the security manager’s toolbox. Even the most experienced managers have to approach each new conflict with renewed understanding, because no two conflicts are the same.

A common mistake that security managers make is giving in to the tendency to settle for a superficial understanding of things. They do this because time is scarce and they have to understand and fix organizational problems and conflicts quickly and effectively so they are ready for another top priority.

Managers are also hardwired, as are all human beings, to seek the easiest route to peace in the workplace. Sound research reveals that the human brain functions more as an efficiency machine than a truth finder. It turns out that our brains want quick, easy, and simple certainty and will settle for artificial, incomplete truth just for the sake of closure.

Take the usual level of understanding of something like a meeting, for example. It is rare for managers to go past the words they hear. They rarely try to understand how and why the other person is using these particular words, what they mean to the other person, or whether they accurately represent the original ideas and intentions.

Many security managers with too much work and too little time often just listen to a conversation in order to respond, rather than to really understand. It often takes aggressive listening to pick up the nuances in the speaker’s manner. Other issues that frequently interfere with understanding include distractions such as impatience, personal agendas, more pressing priorities, noise, and bad timing.

For example, there is a natural conflict between the service goals of the operations department and the revenue-generating goals of the sales department. To really understand the operations versus sales conflict well enough to resolve it with a creative compromise, the manager will have to listen well enough to hear the sales person’s frustrations and obstacles about the keen competition she is trying to overcome. Simultaneously, the manager will have to understand the operations leader’s failed attempts to recruit the right employees and to fill odd schedules at low pay rates.

In the best situations, the company will have some sales people with previous exposure to the operations side of the house. There is nothing like doing someone else’s job to increase personal empathy for the difficulties that are involved.

In other cases, conflicts among departments may arise from frustrations much like that of police officers catching the bad guys and then being frustrated that the courts release them to the streets so quickly. The manager should help each of the parties to focus on doing their duties to the best of their abilities, without wasting time worrying about what happens that is outside of their control.

Whatever the source of the conflict, the manager must not ignore it. It is often through the process of patiently working out what is the underlying cause of a conflict that the solution to a difficult problem can be found.

Working through a conflict can also help all those involved to get to the next stage of development in self-awareness, team building, and productivity. Finding this purpose is not easy because there are too many distractions getting in the way. These include all the noisy symptoms of turnover, sick-leave abuse, business cancellations, decreasing revenue, employee grievances, and low morale. Managers must look past these symptoms to decode the conflict.

In the sales versus operations conflict, the answer may simply be to focus each department on considering how what it does will affect the other side of the equation. Thus, if sales brings clients in indiscriminately, servicing them may not be possible. Therefore, sales may need to develop and follow more qualifying business development rules. Improved communications between the two conflicting groups is also generally advisable.


People need to feel that they are understood—and that takes considerable unselfish time and effort on the team’s part. We all have probably reversed the order in seeking to be understood ourselves first, before we are willing to try to understand the other person. But that never gets results, especially when you are trying to build a team.

In the case of sales staff versus operational staff, both need to show a little empathy for the difficulty of each other’s jobs.

In cases where one group seems to be making unreasonable demands on, for example, the security department, it may be that the internal or external client does not understand why the demand is unreasonable or there may simply be a miscommunication about what the client is really requesting.


Certain conditions create problem behavior, and these conditions must be understood. Most people are not inherently mean, unmotivated, conniving, dumb, or cruel. Certain conditions can, however, provoke such behavior. When managers learn to recognize these conditions, they can often put an end to them—and to the unpleasant behavior that is generating conflict.

In the case of a conflict between sales and operational staff, for example, the manager must to take the time to see what conditions—beyond the normal adversarial relationship—may be responsible for fueling the problem. The manager may find one particularly difficult new account was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back or that three people quit without notice and thus put holes in the operations manager’s schedule. And worse yet, these incidents may not have been openly communicated between the two groups, leaving sales to think that operations was simply inept.

The reality is that misunderstood emotions often hide the real issues that need to be resolved in these sorts of conflicts. And, of course, egos can create defensive communication and make matters worse.

In the example of a demanding client, whether in-house or external, the manager may need to do some more homework and rapport building to better understand the client’s true motivations. Just spending more time with clients to understand the pressures they are under may also do the trick.


So what can a security manager do to mitigate the damage when employees are in the middle of a fierce conflict? The simple answer is to encourage all stakeholders in the conflict to focus on trying to clearly understand three areas of their team relationship, by asking and answering these three critical questions:

■ What can I do to understand the other team members better?

■ What are the conditions that are creating the problem behavior we are all involved in?

■ What am I failing to learn from this conflict?

By answering these three questions, the manager can get beyond the symptoms and assess the underlying problem. Understanding any conflict is three-quarters of its resolution.

Fixing symptoms in team conflict isn’t the help that is needed from the manager, because that approach doesn’t work. The only thing that does work is to take the time and make the commitment to truly understand the conflict and the people who are in it and teaching them how to do the same.

In a sense, team building can be a test of everyone’s character and a chance to see how creative the team can be in resolving the conflict. Ultimately, conflicts can never be solved without all stakeholders understanding the respective roles of the other players and the underlying cause of the problem.

William Cottringer, Ph.D., is president of Puget Sound Security in Bellevue, Washington. He is the author of several books including Your Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too, The Bow-Wow Secrets, and Thread Your Needle with Life’s Rope. Cottringer is a member of ASIS International.