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Monday, May 16, 2011

Conflict Resolution: Supervisor's Role in Personality Conflicts

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, April 2011

Written by Bob Smith, a former APCO International senior staff member, currently works for a public safety and national security consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.

"Billy won't stop picking on my!"

"Suzie keeps saying mean things about me!"

Are complaints like those above common in your workplace? Do you hear these comments because you're a parent of toddlers or because you're a comm center supervisor or manager? If it's the latter, things will only get worse unless you step in and do something.

In all fairness, personality conflicts occur in every line of work. Whenever you get a group together for long enough on a regular basis, clashes will occur. It's human nature. When you add all of the stressors inherent to our line of work -- eight - to - 12-hour shifts, limited access to the outside world, burnout, understaffing, mandatory overtime and the sheer stress of handling emergency calls for assistance -- into the mix, you escalate the development of personality issues and increase their frequency.

As a supervisor, if you haven't already, you will have an issue like this arise at your agency. If you have employees who are just not getting along and the tension is building, you can handle it in various ways. But some ways are better than others; some will work, and some won't. You'll just need to keep trying methods until the problem is resolved.

One common way to handle these issues is the ostrich method (the "putting-your-head-in-the-sand-and-hoping-it-goes-away" method). Adults argue as much as kids do, sometimes. The difference: When these battles occur in the workplace, they can severely affect overall agency morale and, eventually, productivity and agency operations if they're allowed to fester and aren't addressed properly. This can become a real issue -- to the point of increasing a comm center's liability. Just hoping two warring parties will work it out on their own or grow tired of their battle is the worst way to deal with conflict.


Your job as a supervisor includes serving as a facilitator for those you supervise, ensuring they have the tools and training necessary to succeed in their positions. Sometimes, part of facilitation is helping your employees get along, which will require you to step in and try to quiet personality conflicts as quickly as possible to keep it from affecting others or agency operations.

Remember, although they're acting like children, you must treat your employees like adults. Putting them in the corner won't fly. Sometimes, small conflicts can be resolved with just a little time and distance away from each other, allowing tempers to level out and give warring parties a chance to discuss the issue in a civil manner. However, time isn't the final solution to the problem.

Sometimes, the best approach is to take both parties aside into a quiet, private area, allowing each person to be open and honest. Let each side tell their story without interruption and give them both a chance to air their grievances. This action alone may settle the argument. After this is accomplished, let them know that their tiff is growing to an unacceptable level that could affect morale and, eventually, overall agency operations and that it will no longer be permitted.

You may need to have a third party present to witness the discussions or mediate the situation. Consider asking someone with human resource experience or training in conflict resolution for assistance.

This sounds easy enough, right? Unfortunately, it isn't. It's challenging to everyone involved: the individuals arguing, those working with them and those supervising them. But the situation must be addressed.

Hundreds of courses and seminars are available to educate you on the most successful methods of conflict resolution. I encourage all agencies to make this training a mandatory part of a supervisor's professional development. If you're a supervisor for an agency that doesn't encourage you to obtain training in conflict resolution, then pursue the training on your own. Many educational sessions can be low cost and even free. It's well worth the personal time and money to ensure you can handle these situations when they arise.

The bottom line: Personality conflicts are common in the business world. They are unpleasant for everyone involved and even more unpleasant to address as a supervisor. However, dealing with these situations quickly and efficiently can make the difference between a successfully functioning operation and one in which morale and productivity are low, and stress and burnout are high.

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