Conflict Management and the Core Technology: A Troubled Employee Often Is Symptomatic of Issues Affecting Several Workers or Even Entire Work Groups. Offering Conflict Management Services Can Enable EAPs to Address Such Issues on a Broader Scale

By Porter, Patricia M.; Sawyer-Harmon, Cecily | The Journal of Employee Assistance, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Conflict Management and the Core Technology: A Troubled Employee Often Is Symptomatic of Issues Affecting Several Workers or Even Entire Work Groups. Offering Conflict Management Services Can Enable EAPs to Address Such Issues on a Broader Scale


Porter, Patricia M., Sawyer-Harmon, Cecily, The Journal of Employee Assistance


A work group ... a multiplicity of differences, a catalyst for synergistic change, and our most valuable workplace asset.

A painting ... a piece of history, an element of wholeness, and a thing of beauty.

A magnificent piece of art was stored in a dark, damp basement. It went unprotected and became damaged through years of neglect until it was almost unrecognizable. New owners of the building discovered the painting and saw something worth saving. Expert intervention was required by art conservationists, who meticulously studied the painting and developed a detailed plan to restore and preserve it--one paint chip at a time.

Similar to a conservationist's work in restoring and maintaining valuable pieces of art, EAPs often intervene in destructive and neglected work relationships with the goal of rebuilding and maintaining constructive work environments. Traditionally, EAPs have focused on the problems associated with the job performance, personal challenges, mental health, and/or substance abuse issues of a "troubled employee." However, just as a painting may be viewed as an amalgamation of paint chips, a troubled employee often is one piece of a larger problem involving several individuals or even an entire work group.

Work relationships are prone to breakdowns, in large part because the workplace naturally encourages change and growth that often lead to conflict. Modern work environments are beset by employee turnover, organizational restructuring, limited resources, and other organizational challenges. These factors can lead to interpersonal stress, communication problems, challenging group dynamics, poor decision-making, performance issues, and (ultimately) increased costs to organizations through lost time and decreased productivity.

EAPs typically take a micro-focused, or employee-centered, approach to resolving such problems. An FA professional will provide counseling and case management services to a troubled worker, the intent being to support the individual in addressing job-related issues on his/her own. But how can EAPs address multi-dimensional problems, especially with limited resources? Should services such as conflict management and mediation be integrated into an EAP's toolbox?

TAKING A "MACRO" APPROACH

Conflict management is a body of knowledge and practices that recognizes, manages, and prevents conflict and/or resolves disputes. It is a fluid and dynamic process that looks for constructive ways to deal with change, confront issues, and address work relationships. Just as EAPs use a variety of strategies to address employee challenges, conflict management practitioners (who often assume an impartial role) use a diverse range of interventions to address conflicts, including mediation among employees, group facilitation, conflict coaching, circle dialogues, and conflict resolution training.

Budget constraints and a lack of resources (such as an ombudsman's office or organizational development specialist) have required our EAP to broaden its core functions and offer conflict management services. Offering conflict management requires us to take a "macro," or systemic, approach when addressing workplace problems, which simply means we look at the big picture or the problem as a whole before developing a plan of action. The plan might include various interventions ranging from individual counseling to conflict resolution with a work group.

In a typical scenario, the director of a work group in discord will call us about protracted conflict among his/her employees. We will respond by conducting a thorough assessment of all the key participants and developing a plan of action in collaboration with management (and with input from employees). Much like an art conservationist designs a plan to meticulously restore a painting one paint chip at a time, a conflict management practitioner diligently works with the individuals and groups, one relationship at a time, with the intent of repairing and strengthening the group and resolving the issues. …

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