To paraphrase a famous contemporary adage: conflict happens. But what businesses and corporations do when it does happen can make all the difference in the world. “People often come to my course with the expectation that they can somehow eliminate conflict,” says Leigh Isleib, former human resource executive at Permacell. “But conflict is going to happen, and when it does it’s important to develop the good things that can emerge out of a conflict situation.”
Isleib leads a five-session course on “How to Manage Conflicts Within an Organization” at Mercer County Community College, starting on Wednesday, April 19, at 6:30 p.m. Designed by the American Management Association, it is part of a certificate program in project management, and is also offered as a standalone course. Cost: $270. Call 609-586-9446.
“There are usually people there who are currently working in clerical or low management positions and are interested in strengthening their skills for advancement,” says Isleib.
According to Isleib, there are two main types of conflict that regularly occur within organizations and businesses. The first, and the one most easily rectified, is structural conflict. “You often will have structural conflict when you have one department in an organization that is treated differently than another,” says Isleib. “Employees tend to learn about this situation through casual cafeteria conversation. One department might get away with more than another and this can be a poison to a work environment.”
The key to resolving this sort of conflict is to bring in the human resources department as quickly as possible in order to provide a baseline for the discussion. “The important thing is that everybody needs to be on the same page and feel they are being treated in the same way,” says Isleib. “You try to come up with ways to resolve it early so that it doesn’t fester into a situation that is untenable in the business environment.”
The other form of conflict is the interpersonal variety and, says Isleib, this can be a bit trickier to settle. “Often this type of conflict occurs when somebody walks into the room and you just don’t like him,” he says. “But really, I’ve seen this type of conflict take on forms too numerous to count.”
The key to settling interpersonal conflict is to allow human resources to hold an honest discussion with the parties involved firmly based on the reality of the situation. “Serve as a mediator by sitting down with the folks, discuss what the problem is, and try to get everyone’s opinion,” says Isleib. The final answer usually boils down to the simple fact that co-workers do not need to be buddies. “Building that all important work relationship is imperative even though the relationship may not go any further,” he says, “and in fact you probably don`t want it to go any further.”
Often combatants, and those who try to counsel them, forget to get the HR department involved early in the conflict situation. “So many folks wait until the last step when they want to fire somebody,” says Isleib. “That is absolutely wrong. You have to build a case, a paper trail. All those kinds of things are necessary today if you want to terminate someone. Otherwise you will end up with a nice lawsuit on your lap.”
Born and raised in Westwood, Isleib is a graduate of Farleigh Dickinson University. After earning his degree he served in the Navy, attending officer candidate’s school in Newport, Rhode Island. “I was onboard ship for four years as an executive officer,” he says. “I learned a lot about dealing with conflict there.”
He then worked in manufacturing at Permacell for the next 20 years, working his way up the ladder from supervisor to plant manager to director of operations. Finally having enough of manufacturing, Isleib moved to the human resources department. “One of my strengths has always been getting along with people,” he says. “So I ended my career in human resources, where I did labor relations, negotiated contracts, did arbitration, grievances, all that kind of stuff.”
Retired for the past four years, Isleib is married and lives in East Windsor. He and his wife have four grown children and three grandchildren. While occasionally teaching, he continues to work as a consultant for Permacell. “People ask me why I still bother to teach,” he says. “It’s certainly not for the money. A few bucks are nice and I call it my mad money, but I do it because I’ve always had the philosophy of ‘get a mentor, be a mentor.’”
While managing conflicts is just one of a myriad of duties any supervisor must address, it is something that can quickly get out of hand. That’s why it is important for all managers to develop their own style in advance of any crises that may emerge. “Work out what is best for you and stick with it,” he says. “One of the things I learned when I was in officer candidate’s school was that you need to be consistent, every day. If you are going to be a hardass, then be a hardass every day. Same thing with being a nice guy. Your people need to know what to expect.”
Dealing with organizational clashes can be overwhelming to a manager who is unprepared. Isleib offers these tips for those supervisors and managers looking to head off a potential river of conflict.
Observe with fingers crossed. While it is often good to deal with erupting conflicts early, it is important to first know what you are getting into. Sometimes you get lucky. “Everybody seems to want to get involved in conflict right away,” he says. “But really, avoid it if you can. Stand back, take a look at what is going on. If it is something that you need to deal with, then go ahead. But avoiding it is a good way sometimes.”
Really listen. When wading through a conflict situation, be sure to speak with all parties involved. Allow everyone to have his or her say, and be sure to listen and respond where appropriate. Keep an open mind. Going into a volatile discussion with your mind already made up will usually only add to the problem.
Create a paper trail. It is always easier to bring a troubled employee around than it is to go out and hire a new person, chiefly because you never know what you’re going to get. But sometimes firing an employee is the only solution. “In order to avoid lawsuits, document in advance your employees’ transgressions, so that if push comes to shove, you’ve done your homework,” says Isleib.
Be a mentor. “When you are young and learning and you want to get up the corporate ladder, get someone in front of you who has done it and can help you through the effort,” says Isleib. “On the other side of the coin, once you have earned it, you can help the younger guy and give him a chance. When I teach this course I like to inject a bit of my philosophy. I only get one shot at these folks.”