Teach Your Employees Conflict Management Skills

January, 2000

ã 2000, Douglas E. Noll

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Several weeks ago I spent two days at a high technology firm in Silicon Valley. I had been asked to visit a customer service division of the company for the purposes of conflict management evaluation. First, let me describe the conditions of employment facing the workers.

In general, the employees were in their mid to late 20's and well-educated. There seemed to be an even mixture between men and women and the service group was ethnically diverse. The lowest paid employee was making in the mid to high 5 figures, while the more experienced employees were in six figures. In addition, the employees received a minimum 8% bonus per quarter, with some bonuses reaching 50% per quarter depending on performance. The stock options were generous and healthy. Longer-term employees had accumulated substantial wealth based on stock options. Although the cost of living in the Bay Area was high, all of the employees were well compensated. The automobiles in the parking lot attested to the affluence of the group.

While I was there for a two-day visit, lunch was brought in daily, and as has been reported in the press, a chiropractor came in one afternoon at company expense to provide adjustments to any employee. There was a huge break room with restaurant-style refrigerators full of sodas, bottled waters, and other drinks free for the taking, along with the usual coffee service. A company owned cafeteria was steps away and a fitness center, also company owned, was next door.

While the work was intense, most employees worked a normal eight-hour shift. Weekend work was unusual, but the employees were highly compensated when that was required. All in all, the job conditions were about as perfect as one could hope for, and the employer was doing everything possible to keep its employees happy.

Guess what I found? Conflict was endemic. Rivalries had begun to develop between engineers and customer service representatives such that many customer service representatives felt like second-class citizens. Many of the employees lacked sophisticated conflict management skills and were unable to effectively communicate with their coworkers, and more importantly, with customers. Some employees refused to document their work, which caused enormous difficulties for other employees depending upon documentation for their jobs. While many employees truly cared about their jobs, others were milking the work to springboard to a higher paying job at another company.

In addition, rivalries were developing between regional centers across the country. The California center was beginning to be in conflict with the East Coast center and the European center. I quickly discovered that a "us" versus "them" mentality was fracturing what had to be a worldwide team effort.

What did this teach me? First, no amount of money, benefits, or perquisites will eliminate conflict within an organization. These employees were as well compensated and as well treated as any employees I have ever witnessed anywhere. They had absolutely no excuse for complaints; yet complaints were prevalent. The problem was that basic human needs-- respect for each other, understanding, empathic communication, and compassion-- were not being met. This was not the fault of management, but a condition caused by the employees’ lack of social skills and knowledge of human conflict.

What I learned was that deficient skills in conflict management create the same adverse and hostile conditions within the work environment regardless of pay, benefits, or stock options. I have seen the same conflict conditions in non-high tech companies paying substantially less and offering none of the benefits I saw in the Bay Area. I conclude that many people simply lack the social skills necessary to deal with conflict constructively. They will bring their lack of knowledge and incompetence in conflict management to whenever environment they find themselves in. Changing the environment will not change the conflict situation.

I suspect that employers would be wise to invest in conflict management training for their employees. Teaching their employees to be peacemakers, facilitators, and communicators may pay larger dividends because of reduced workplace conflict. Gilded cages and golden handcuffs may reduce turnover, but will not increase worker satisfaction and happiness.

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm, Douglas E. Noll and Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website and email at

© 2000, Douglas E. Noll
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