Managers face many challenges, but the toughest ones are those that relate to people, according to Todd Thomas, a professor at the graduate school of business, Northwood University.
"Human resources would be so easy if it weren't for the humans," he told an audience of auto repair shop owners and managers during the Automotive Aftermarket Products Expo show in Las Vegas last November.
"We're unpredictable. We take things personally, and we keep them for a long time."
He offered tips on how managers can deal with a few specific, and common, employee conflicts.
When a conflict or problem occurs in the workplace, a manager should gather the facts before addressing the issue; don't ignore it because it's uncomfortable; and be the first to make sacrifices.
"If what would help in this conflict is for you to give a little, then give a little. If no one wants to talk about it, including you, you should be the first one to talk about it," Mr. Thomas said.
"We're never going to get rid of tough manager challenges. That's what makes managers, managers."
But managers can deal with tough personnel issues by thinking about it, being direct and respecting the people involved, he said.
To be an effective leader, a manager needs to respond to personnel problems with realism, restraint and resolve:
• Realism — the balance between optimism and pessimism. If someone is always late, thinking they will stop being late is overly optimistic, he said. Thinking they are going to be late for the rest of their life and other employees are going to start being late, too, is pessimistic.
"Realism is taking a step back and looking at the situation and saying 'What's actually happening here, and what can I reasonably expect?' " he said.
• Restraint — avoiding the consequences of rash decisions. "As a manager, as a supervisor, one of the greatest skills that you can develop is that ability to stick a minute in there when you need to. To not respond as quickly as you might want to because you understand that whatever response you give as a supervisor or a manager, the more consequences there may be," Mr. Thomas said.
• Resolve — "Lots of times problems we have with particular employees are just easier not to deal with. One of the things I would encourage you to do is to avoid, first of all, denying that there's a problem, and, secondly, avoid 'avoiding' because there are very few tough manager people problems that will resolve themselves without any attention from you," he said. "So sometimes it just takes that moment where you decide: 'This has to stop. I have to deal with it.' And then plan on dealing with it."
Conflict between employees
When two employees are always arguing with each other and holding a grudge against one another, there are three strategies managers commonly use: ignore that there is a conflict between the employees; tell the employees they need to work it out themselves; or step in and impose a resolution.
Ignoring the problem is a legitimate strategy only when the problem is minor and it's going to fix itself, or the employees are on the verge of fixing it themselves. However, it could grow into a bigger issue if it creates a relationship problem and causes more problems down the road, he warned.
Mr. Thomas said the second resolution is a perfectly legitimate strategy if the manager has experience with these people long enough to know that they can resolve the issue between or among themselves and that they have some skill to do it.
Managers should consider imposing a resolution when the issue is time sensitive, when the problem has been going on for a while and doesn't look like it's going to get resolved, and when the problem is starting to impact other people or customers.
"Even if I step in to impose a resolution, I may have fixed the immediate problem, but I may still have a conflict that goes on for awhile," Mr. Thomas said.
He noted that managers need to realize people believe their perceptions. "As a mediator, the last thing you want to do is to tell me (the employee) that what I feel is wrong," he said.
"One way to mediate is to respect the fact that the people in the conflict believe exactly what they believe…conflict is an emotional thing. For you as a manager, it is not helpful if you are also emotional.… You have to be able to sit down and be the cool head in the room, even if you think one of the two is entirely wrong."