Episode 409: Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

Conflict is everywhere and comes in many forms. In the workplace, it can bring down the entire vibe of your practice, and your patients will feel that shift too. What do you do, as a manager or owner, when employees approach you about conflict that they can’t seem to solve themselves? What steps do you take? Listen to this week’s episode to hear what Paul Edwards and Moriah Ochoa sit down and talk about it. 
Voice Over: You’re about to listen to another episode of What The Hell Just Happened?! Join Paul Edwards and his guests as they discuss and sometimes even solve some interesting HR problems. 

Paul: And… I’m gonna go off the rails sometimes and talk about whatever I want. 


Paul: Okay, so the story that I would tell when we talk about conflict resolution is just how difficult it is to be not in the experience as an owner manager and have it going on between people in your business. 

Moriah: Uh hmm.

Paul: I’ve seen this story manifest in many different ways.  But this one, I actually just want to be clear here. I’m not picking a particular office story. I’m bringing three or four stories together whereby now I know to ask this question. This question is, is there any video of what you’re talking about here?  The story that I want to share with you was that, and I want to share it because it was…In one case I was very, very involved. All we had was everybody’s stories. 

Moriah: Right. 

Paul: Right? And this was very disturbing because we had some accusations of physicality taking place.

Moriah: Okay.

Paul: Blocking, maybe some pushing, some very aggressive conversation going on between a manager and someone else.  A long term employee at the practice. 

Moriah: Okay.

Paul: And then there was a third party witness to everything that was kind of going on. 

Moriah: Okay.

Paul: As happens, right, in our businesses, maybe people aren’t getting along or maybe one person’s more volatile than another. There’s always way, way more backstory going on than what is typically told.

Moriah: Right.

Paul: Point of view.

Moriah: Sure.

Paul: You know. You got to love those exercises where the…I did this in college in a psych class. They actually had someone come in and commit a crime against the professor. 

Moriah: [laughing]

Paul: And then afterwards they ask all of us –

Moriah: What did you do? 

Paul: Well, no. What happened? 

Moriah: Oh, what happened? Okay. Describe the person. 

Paul: And describe the person.

Moriah: Yeah.

Paul: And it was amazing that thirty of us had thirty slightly different stories, and some of us had very different views of what happened. So, you know, as a manager, when you have something like this going on, first of all, I just want to say you have to do something about it. In this story, what we did was we investigated. We got everybody’s written stories down. 

Moriah: Uh hmm.

Paul: And you, you know, you could tell everybody why that’s important. The snapshot.

Moriah: Yeah. I mean, first of all, you’re letting those employees know that you’re going to take concerns seriously. 

Paul: Very first thing. Yup. I’m doing something.

Moriah: That it’s your intention to fully understand what they’re experiencing. 

Paul: Yeah.

Moriah: Right? And also that there’s a formal process that you’re going to go through. There are steps that are going to be taken. 

Paul: Yup. 

Moriah: Right? So we’re gathering this information in writing for that reason, but also so that you can determine where there are action items.

Paul: And the last thing I want to add to that, before I continue my story, is we’re taking a snapshot of the story because stories change and oftentimes stories change from this subjective point of view. And all of a sudden someone realizes their story isn’t matching up well and they try to change it. 

Moriah: Right. 

Paul: And so once we get a snapshot, we kind of have the story. It doesn’t mean they can’t add to it or bring new things to light.

Moriah: And to your point, if I tell my manager I have a problem verbally, her interpretation of that issue might be different than my true understanding of the concern.

Paul: Yeah. And what happened? Who else saw it? Were there any witnesses to it? And what would you like to have happen as a result of this?

Moriah: Uh hmm.

Paul: That’s the question we often forget to ask. What do you want me to do about this? And I’m not putting it on you to tell me what to do, but I want to know whether or not you are venting and complaining and you don’t want a lot to happen because you think it might be too much as an employee or you need something to happen because you’re afraid.

Moriah: Right. Something I will note on, is that I, in my previous HR director experience, never used an organized form of that nature that was asking specific questions about what was going on – 

Paul: Yeah.

Moriah: And instead would invite them to submit a written complaint. 

Paul: Right. 

Moriah: And that is still the same issue, right? Like they’re not going to take that action or believe that you’re going to, you know, receive that email and take action on it and take the steps that you need to take. So I love our employee concern form.

Paul: Oh, really?

Moriah: I love it. [laughing]

Paul: I think it’s kind of cool. It is a snapshot and it kind of gives you a broader idea of what everybody wants to have happen. And it could be something as simple as, you know, what do you want to have happen? I’d like for you to talk to them and tell them that they can’t trap me. Or please tell them it’s okay for me not to come to company events at lunch, that I just don’t like being around a lot of different people in that way. I like everybody who works here one on one. But I’m not good in crowds or whatever it is that the person –

Moriah: Yeah.

Paul: So in this particular instance, I wanted to share this story. We have three people involved. One of the people has been with the practice for a very long time. This person is quite volatile. They yell. They kind of seem to lose their temper every now and then. 

Moriah: Okay.

Paul: It’s a bit…It’s not professional in a lot of cases. When they get frustrated, this is who they are. 

Moriah: It’s outward. 

Paul: And we have inherited her.

Moriah: Okay.

Paul: The practice inherited this employee. The patients really like this employee a lot, which is important. And this employee is a really good service provider. So they’re quite thorough in their job. 

Moriah: Okay.

Paul: So job performance and their outward facing thing, they’re quite valuable to the practice. But they have this volatility issue. Always seems to be a lot going on.

Moriah: Yeah. So patient or customer service is not a concern?

Paul: No, no.

Moriah: But you occasionally have outbursts when this person is frustrated.

Paul: Outbursts, especially if you want to try to change something or, you know, just forget about it if you want to try to change something. So a confrontation occurs between this employee and a manager. Manager been there for quite some time. And the witness is not new. The witness is good friends with the manager. 

Moriah: Okay.

Paul: We weren’t there and we get everybody’s story and they don’t quite match up. Everybody agrees it was a conflict. Everybody agrees somebody kind of laid hands on somebody else. 

Moriah: Okay.

Paul: But nobody agrees who initiated it or who might be to blame for it. So what we do is the best we can and we go through all, we take a week and a half and doctor’s in this. He’s got it. He knows. I got to figure this out. I can’t let this keep going. 

Moriah: Good on him.

Paul: And it’s a serious issue put on him. And, you know, he’s a good manager. He just, you know, he just recognizes, like we all do, in hindsight, I probably should let this get to where it is –

Moriah: Exactly.

Paul: Without getting involved, because he was trying to do what an owner should do with a manager, which is let them manage the darn business.

Moriah: Yes.

Paul: That doesn’t mean that they could just get to run willy nilly out there. But she had really been with them for a while and had shown that she was a good manager and had successes. In the end, I came to a conclusion. I was knee deep in this. So I’ve been doing this for years, right? First business at thirty years old. Everybody was listening. I’m 61. I have made some mistakes and I’ve had some successes and I’ve learned from both. And I’m right in the middle of this because it’s quite interesting. It’s quite serious. And we were a little shorthanded at CEDR at the time and I was in the queue and I was answering questions and lo and behold, I thought this was an easy one and I picked it off and it was this. 

Moriah: Yeah.

Paul: We went through our own investigation. I, someone else here, and the doctor all agreed that the problem was likely initiated by the long term employee who had a history of blowing up and being pretty volatile and a little aggressive in her language. 

Moriah: Okay. 

Paul: And then a week later, when we were preparing because I told the doctor, we’ve got to figure this out and you’re probably going to have to let someone go or we’re going to have to issue a pretty strong corrective action. It would be light in one direction and strong in another.

Moriah: Right.

Paul: Because we need a record that we took this seriously and we need to reconcile.

Moriah: Uh hmm.

Paul: Well, the doctor says, “You know, I forgot. Over the weekend, it dawned on me, I actually have a video in that room because they weren’t, I thought they were in a treatment room.”

Moriah: Okay.

Paul: And they weren’t in a treatment room. They were in a different room when this took place. 

Moriah: Let’s see it.

Paul: And I’m not recording any audio. By the way, everybody who’s listening, don’t record audio on your videos. Another subject. And so he said, “I went to the tape and the employee is not to blame here. She was 100% telling the truth.”

Moriah: Okay.

Paul: The manager was the one who blocked the path who forced her to stay in the room, who was pointing her finger at her, who, when the employee tried to get around her, stepped in front of her and kind of actually kind of nudged her backwards and we assume saying, “You don’t get to leave yet until I get to say what I have to say.”

Moriah: Okay, so the video demonstrated that –

Paul: That we were so wrong as a third party in investigating. So I guess the point, everybody can take here, throw their hands up and go, well, that was stupid. You got it all wrong. But here’s the – 

Moriah: There was a missing piece.

Paul: There was a missing piece that we could not know. But here’s the thing. We didn’t get it wrong. We still got everything on paper. We showed that we cared. And even if we had picked the wrong thing, in other words, let’s just say we didn’t get the video. 

Moriah: Uh hmm.

Paul: We fired that employee. She comes back and sues and they find the video. We get to say we didn’t know the video was there. And look at our investigation. 

Moriah: Right.

Paul: Look at what they all said. We just did the best we could with the information that we had. 

Moriah: Uh hmm.

Paul: And that’s powerful. That’s very protective, even though you may have drawn the wrong conclusion.

Moriah: Right.

Paul: So don’t throw your hands up and say, “Oh, well, there’s no use in doing any of this stuff.” So look, I said at the beginning of this that I had a very kind of a devastating thing to deliver to the doctor, which is I…You’ve got this employee with you that’s been with you for a long time, is very valuable. But the fact that she’s blowing up and doing the things that she’s doing, that you documented, that you’ve all brought to light and said, “You know, these are the reasons why we think she’s the one who probably did the pushing and shoving.”

Moriah: Uh hmm.

Paul: That’s got to stop. 

Moriah: It stands. 

Paul: And I think we all agree that as soon as you start making her not do it after her doing it for a lifetime, that she’s just going to get uglier and angrier and she’s not going to change and eventually you’re going to have to let her go. 

Moriah: Yeah.

Paul: And there are all kinds of complications with that because she’s come to you and said, “Someone else shoved me,” and we may be actually working her out the door.

Moriah: Right.

Paul: Right?

Moriah: Yes.

Paul: So we’re not immediately going to take action against her. But what about that manager who just flat out lied?

Moriah: Who lied and also put her hands on somebody.

Paul: And what about the other person who corroborated, who was just teaming up with the managers? Because it was a two –

Moriah: To misrepresent the facts.

Paul: To misrepresent the facts of what’s going on.

Moriah: Of the altercation.

Paul: Everybody who’s listening, that manager didn’t get to that point by herself. She made a pretty serious mistake though.

Moriah: Uh hmm.

Paul: But I can imagine she was very frustrated with this employee. 

Moriah: Absolutely. 

Paul: You know, everybody was cause in the matter.

Moriah: She was very frustrated. But she was also given full ownership of delegation and corrective action to that employee.

Paul: And she wasn’t doing her thing, but the employee was totally resistant and you know, it’s so…Look, everybody could be at fault here. But my devastating thing to deliver here is that we need to strongly consider letting the manager and the person that teamed up with her go for misrepresenting this against the employee. And if I’m the owner, who’s delegated this, this is my fault.

Moriah: Exactly. You took, you let go of that ownership factor of the employee delegation and management. But you also weren’t doing what I think is the most important piece of letting ownership go and fully delegating tasks with still maintaining a system of checks and balances. 

Paul: Trust but verify.

Moriah: And trust but verify and auditing.

Paul: Yeah. Yeah.

Moriah: Because you can fully take, you know, you can trust somebody fully with tasks. You can have a consistent track record. But something like this, where somebody is pushed to their limits of frustration and they don’t have the tools or the training ultimately that they need to be able to single handedly handle these things.

Paul: Isn’t the manager’s perception that the doctor is letting that explosive employee continue to be explosive either by not addressing it or seeing it and just seeing you deal with it? Right?

Moriah: Right. 

Paul: All right. So, you know, as an owner, when you put a manager in place, you can’t just ignore things that are going on. Sometimes you need to step in and model that, look, we have to be strong here or we have to do the thing. We’ve got to write her up or we’ve got to make notes.

Moriah: We have to do the thing. 

Paul: We have to sit down and talk to her. We have to keep trying to help her be better. 

Moriah: Yes. 

Paul: Even though it blows the whole place up. And then, you know, after a while, if every time you talk to someone to try to get them to be better, they blow up or they cause a big stink, then to me that means that it’s not a fit for them.

Moriah: And as a business owner or a high level manager, you do have to be in tune with those lower managers who are delegating and who you’re depending on to create and foster a healthy environment. You have to know what their limits are. So, you know, maybe with a longtime trusted manager who has shown that they can handle these types of issues, these types of conflict resolution, healthy conflict resolution in the past.

Paul: They sometimes still need help, though.

Moriah: Absolutely. 

Paul: Yeah.

Moriah: Yeah. But maybe that initial conversation is, “Hey, this is a big problem. Do you have a plan in place to address it?” And with that longer standing employee, that’s the system of checks and balances. And then following up and making sure that that plan is happening. With a newer employee, a newer office manager and somebody who’s just recently been promoted, it’s way more intense. You have to show them what that language looks like. You have to model, like you said, that behavior. Because it’s a muscle, and if you don’t flex it? 

Paul: Yeah. It takes you back to our one on one conversation. So everything kind of connects over at CEDR when we’re talking about this kind of stuff. So we came in here thinking we might be talking about actual conflict resolution. We’ve written a guide. I think it’s very helpful but that’s actually for everything that should have been happening leading up to the problem that we’ve laid out today. And this is a problem that manifests in this way, in one way or another in practices all the time. So if you’re listening out there, there’s conflict all the time. Good, healthy conflict. Unhealthy conflict. We’re just, we’re putting a label on it. There’s always something that needs correcting, someone who needs adjusting. There’s always something that you’re tweaking.

Moriah: Always. Yeah.

Paul: It’s just never, it’s never there. But the one thing that you do have to do as an owner manager is get good at helping to mediate problems between two employees. And just remember, you just don’t really know. You just don’t know what’s going on until you actually know. And we usually don’t get film footage.

Moriah: And still there can be missing pieces.

Paul: And still there could be missing pieces.

Moriah: Yeah.

Paul: So What The Hell Just Happened in HR today is that –

Moriah: Healthy conflict resolution.

Paul: And that some things can’t be solved.

Moriah: Some things can’t be solved, but getting to that place of dealing with an altercation and or finding a resolution to conflict, my question to employers and managers is what challenges might you face when you get to that point? 

Paul: Yeah. 

Moriah: What have you tolerated? 

Paul: Yeah. 

Moriah: That brought you to this point? And how might those actions and events challenge the process of actual healthy conflict?

Paul: Okay, thanks for coming in and and thanks to everybody for listening to me ramble on about that story. But it just floored me when I was wrong. 

Moriah: Sure.

Paul: I was so sure we had gotten this right.

Moriah: Yeah. And delivering that devastating piece is not great. But again, we all have just built all this HR knowledge on prior experience. 

Paul: Yeah.

Moriah: I hear you say it all the time and I can speak to that myself. You have to learn the hard way sometimes.

Paul: Yup.

Moriah: And flexing that muscle and learning what the challenges that you’re faced with when you have to deliver or receive devastating news. It’s all about that experience and flexing those muscles.

Paul: Yep. You learn a little bit from it. Thanks!

Voice Over: Thanks for joining us for this week’s episode of What The Hell Just Happened? do Paul a favor; share this with your network. If you have an HR issue or a question, and you’d like us to discuss it on this show, send it to podcast@WTHjusthappened.com. For more HR advice and insights from Paul and his team of experts, you can also join the private Facebook group, HR Base Camp, or visit HRbasecamp.com. Make sure you tune in next week. And remember: better workplaces make better lives. 

Jul 7, 2023

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