Crisis and Conflict Communication For Managers

By Stephen Manallack

On his first day as manager of a call center, a colleague posted a sign in the office that read: “Our reaction to events can be more important than the events themselves.” His biggest fear was that a well-intentioned staff member would try to cover up a mistake. The purpose of the sign was to let the staff know that how we respond to such challenges on the job can have more impact than the initial mistake.

It’s worth looking closely at how members of your team react when something goes wrong. If an action or task has been somehow overlooked, do they admit the error and get on with fixing it? Or do they keep quiet, process the request late and hope that nobody notices?

The second approach – keeping things quiet – occurs mostly when internal communication is poor and management is feared rather than respected. We know from business studies that many companies are damaged more by their reaction to a crisis than by the crisis itself. Some of the worst companies react to a crisis by covering up, lashing out at anyone and everyone, seeking refuge in legal action, and failing to keep their staff and customers informed. By pretending there is no problem, they guarantee that it gets worse. Problems don’t solve themselves; people do.

When good companies face a crisis or a problem, they may take steps such as these. It’s worth trying to engender this type of approach:

  • Get the facts (the first casualty of war is the truth, and it surely disappears when we are angry or in crisis)
  • Communicate action (people respect you if you act positively, even if at first you were wrong)
  • Review stance and processes (look at yourself – what do you need to change?)
  • Take market soundings (ask others what they think)
  • Change behavior and practices (you will improve if you try to change)
  • Get the new message across (work on positive communication)

Note how the bad company lashed out in haste, while the good company takes its time and considers the situation. This suggests that patience is key. In most areas of working life, disputes and conflict do arise from time to time and can escalate into a crisis. So what do you do about conflict?

Is there something underneath it all? An important first tactic is to explore the possibility that there are some deep problems within the group.

Avoid hasty reactions. Yelling at someone increases the level of conflict.

Don’t force an end to conflict. This might work in the short term, but for real long-term resolution of group conflict, let the group spend some time working on resolving the conflict.

Extreme criticism can have lasting effects. If one person is acting up, the best managers know that criticizing and perhaps humiliating them in front of their colleagues might end the misbehavior today, but the cost could be that the person leaves the company or makes a lesser contribution to the team. This could be quite a loss, so hesitate and think before you use severe criticism to end a conflict.

Resolving conflict harmoniously is not a matter of being weak or letting people walk all over you. We all face tricky emotional situations when it is important to assert ourselves.

The best way to do this is to start immediately. If, for example, you suspect there is a conflict brewing in the office, gather the right people together and talk about it as soon as possible.

One further lesson from the corporate world is that while dealing with a problem situation, try to keep a steady, friendly gaze into your colleagues’ eyes. Almost every communication-training program places a lot of focus on eye contact. If you look at the ceiling, cover your mouth, and look anxiously around the room, you will be misunderstood, sowing the seeds for the next crisis.

Stephen Manallack has more than 20 years experience as a freelance communication consultant, and is a professional speaker and author of “You Can Communicate; PR Secrets for Personal Success,” Pearson Education, 2002. He can be contacted in Australia at 613 9827 9368 or email sm@labyrinth.net.au.

[From Connection MagazineNovember 2003]

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