Managing conflict with customers and staff. How much did you cause today? 

It’s that wonderful time of year when many of us decide to fly off on holiday and once again I am reminded how Airlines and Airports continue to manage to create huge conflict.  What lessons does this provide for us?

Of the many factors influencing conflict one of the most damaging is lack of feedback. Let’s look at how that works.

You can probably imagine the scene, or you lived it. Things at the airport are not going well. For a multitude of reasons you are delayed along with many other flights.

So what are you told? Very little. Are you given any explanation? Rarely. Do you suddenly feel like a 5 year old who has been told “No, because I say so”

Yet hang on a minute you are a grown up, you have a responsible job, a family, you saved up to pay for this and you now have no control or rationale. As the scene unfolds people start to ask the staff [if they are not in hiding] what's going on. The answers vary between staff and usually tell us little. So you ask someone in a uniform passing by, they have a different answer. Then someone overhears something from another queue [there will be many] which provides another explanation. The information boards offer little and notice every time they change how eager everyone is to look up with hope in their eyes and a hunger for information. Within no time this delay can vary between an hour and a day and the conflict can rest at the feet of a number of innocent people. Now the grapevine takes over and reality gets lost.

Have you ever watched how the crowd now start to behave? Even the mild mannered, world champion queuing Brits slowly turn into a monster. Tempers flare, families argue, people start pushing, staff are shouted at, it’s looking pretty nasty. The common factor holding it together is a growing anger towards the perpetrators of this delay, who can we blame next?

Yet an hour ago these people were all relaxed and happy, what memory will they take home?

Let’s bring this principle back to business.

Change offers great potential for conflict. Yet at a time communication, clarity and honesty should be the priority, it often doesn’t happen. So staff make up their own stories to get people off their backs. Managers somehow seem to think the grownups they employed to do quite complex tasks won’t be able to handle a true explanation, or in some cases any explanation “because I say so”.

Then the grapevine takes over, the result of this can be a long lasting negative energy towards the business and management or colleagues. It can take years to re build trust and confidence. So why do we let this happen?

Frequently I see knee jerk reactions: not understanding what the real problem is and getting to the source or really thinking through the implications for staff and customers. Usually the wrong people are involved in getting to a solution. As a rule of thumb I would suggest your first solution is wrong. Think deeper and broader. In some cases it’s simply a lack of well developed process or awareness of the process. Better to think about all the potential “knock on effect” conflicts before they happen and plan options?

Often its fear. Fear of recrimination, of being seen as the one responsible, of having to deliver negative news, having to hurt colleagues, lose people, not believing the message you have been given, so you change it a little?

However one thing is for sure in business, no matter how good your solution may be if you deliver it in the wrong way it will inflame the conflict. Now that is really confusing when managers have taken time to work it out with the best of intentions, yet they just deliver the message badly. Then they become the ones in conflict with staff! Do you include how your people behave in your thinking?

For those not subscribing to the importance of behaviour, right now you are in the Feeling zone. Emotions are high , some people will not be in a rational place, fear, worry, concern, change, loss are all in mind and “trust me” might not work as well as you hoped. You might have taken days to work this out yet you expect them to buy in within minutes?

With a potential conflict, providing feedback as early as you can helps manage the grapevine, reduces stress and can get essential input from other stakeholders. Even saying there is no news is better than not saying anything. Worst of all do not ‘wing it’ with the answer; that will bite back. Say nothing or say something true and factual.

Watch people in the airport when at last they are told [often after some hours] the delay will be another 3 hours. The mood changes, people can accept and relate to this; families and travellers can make plans, assess their options and get some control back. Suddenly the energy changes, it’s palpable. We like to be treated like responsible adults. Don’t expect them to suddenly be happy, you probably haven’t earned that, yet hear the cheers when they eventually board for home

There’s a great saying around this “the certainty of misery is better than the misery of uncertainty”

Conflict is normal it happens all the time, yet creates such problems for many people who don’t understand it. It may be small or significant and we all handle in different ways, another set of behaviours we need to understand so we can deliver the right message to those who might avoid or compete.

So let’s not be like the Airport experience, let’s handle it better, don’t suppress feedback and communicate clearly and as openly as you can, treat recipients like competent adults, manage the grapevine and even better learn about the styles people fit within. Become masters of problem solving.

It’s rarely fun, however it’s essential to handle conflict well if you want to establish a strong culture of trust, alignment and high performance.

What kind of conflict manager are you? And how much conflict did you cause today?




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