Managing Conflict In Retail

Managing Conflict In #Retail

Managing conflict is probably one of the more important competencies to possess, as a leader, in retail. Conflict regularly rears it’s ugly head in retail and it comes from, and is directed toward, a lot of people and places within an organization. It exists between leaders and their teams, peers, employees and their boss(es), and/or employees and senior/executive leadership. It’s something as leaders, we deal with, in some form or fashion, at least on a weekly basis. Conflict in retail can revolve around personalities, policies, who assisted a specific customer, scheduling, unspoken perceptions, workload balance…literally, I have seen conflict brew over nothing. There are few things that I have seen fail, miserably, for leaders when trying to deal with conflict:

(1) They avoid it at all costs
-This is the worst possible thing that can be done
-Crossing your fingers hoping that the issue(s) go away will not only, fail, but exacerbate an already nefarious situation
-This approach empowers the parties to continue their campaigns of gossip and negativity, which can easily turn into workplace bullying – depending on the situation
-Ignoring conflict in your area of responsibility will quickly impact your reputation as a leader. No matter how much you hope the conflict will stay within the boundaries of your department – it won’t…it will quickly spread into other areas
– You will lose the respect of your team and coworkers when you don’t fairly and consistently address conflict

(2) They end up treating the people locked in conflict like children
-They tell them separately to behave
-They don’t allow them to speak with each other
-They dictate that “This is how it is and this is how it’s going to be”
-This method also ends up back-firing

(3) They try to make everyone happy and force team spirit
-As a leader, decisions have to be made in the best interest of company policy and fairness
-There is a right and wrong in conflict (generally – or at least shades of it)
-You cannot brush issues under the rug or deal with them in a vague manner
-As a leader, you will not be able to please everyone all the time but you can mitigate the frustrations, through clear communication, the “why” behind decisions, processes, and resolving the conflict

Here are some interesting statistics on workplace conflict. This one has the greatest “WOW Factor” for me: “It is estimated that more than 65% of performance problems result from strained relationships between employees — not from deficits in individual employees’ skill or motivation” – just imagine how negatively this impacts workplace happiness, culture, motivation, productivity, and (ultimately) profitability! Just because there are strained relationships.

Here are some of the most common workplace catalysts for conflict:
-Workplace Favoritism (perceived or actual)
-Rumors or gossip
-Workplace policy violations
-Passive aggressive behavior

According to the fine folks at ConflictTango (you can read it here) “only 31% of managers think they handle workplace conflict well (but only 21% of non-managers agree with them)”. AND “43% of non-managers believe that their bosses do not deal with conflict as well as they should”.

Here are some other pretty staggering statistics:
-Employees in the US spend 2.8 hours of their work week dealing with conflict
-16% of conflict escalated or increased in intensity
-49% of workplace conflict revolves around personality conflicts
-26% of workplace conflict revolves around dishonesty
The typical manager spends 25-40% of his or her time dealing with workplace conflicts. That’s one to two days of every work week. Washington Business Journal, May 2005
According to Zupek, “HR Managers spend 25%-60% of their time working through employee conflicts
-More than 50% of employers report having been sued by an employee. Society for Human Resource Management

Here is a great article by Jennifer Lawler (author of My Best Boss Ever) from Entrepreneur on The Real Cost Of Workplace Conflict – here are some of the bigger points:
-U.S. employees spent 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. This amounts to approximately $359 billion in paid hours (based on average hourly earnings of $17.95), or the equivalent of 385 million working days
-Nearly 10 percent of employees reported that workplace conflict led to project failure and more than one-third said that conflict resulted in someone leaving the company, either through firing or quitting (and remember…these are people leaving who are likely, without conflict, good – if not great – employees)
-If an employee uses five days of sick pay to avoid conflict – that equates to over $700 in payroll costs (not to mention the added costs to cover the work in overtime or calling in another employee)

Here are some suggestions on how to minimize conflict in your area of responsibility:
(1) Hire emotionally intelligent and emotionally mature people
(2) Be a fair, consistent, and objective leader
(3) Support culture of healthy competition that is collaboration based
(4) Regularly, when organic to the conversation, communicate that gossip, rumors, and/or negativity have no place in the culture of your workplace
(5) Take action immediately when conflict arises or you suspect it is about to arise
(6) Bring the conflicting parties together to discuss as adults and work through issues immediately – allow them the opportunity to state their case and you and the opposing view should commit to listening when the other party is speaking
(7) Support a culture that encourages work relationships and workplace friendships (people are less likely to find conflict with their allies)
(8) If your workplace culture is built on being professional and respectful, through being a values and vision based retail organization that supports alignment, ensure that parties are respectful and professional when they speak with each other (a commitment not to be verbally abusive or condescending [don’t swear at each other, people…it’s not nice])
(9) Encourage people, when you are coaching them, to approach business issues objectively and with as little emotion as possible (you don’t have to wait for conflict to discuss – this is just a great practice or in other words “Don’t take it personally” – the same philosophy we have with customers)
(10) Have a zero-tolerance policy for workplace bullying
(11) If you don’t have one, I strongly recommend adopting a peer-to-peer recognition program in your workplace – it will set the tone for positive reinforcement and celebration between coworkers

In retail we have a tremendously heavy population of “yentas” (the female AND male variety [unfortunately it is the reality]), there is also a perceived high-stress level (that should be coached to: time-management, prioritization, and delegation practices – retail should be 80% fun and challenging and 20% stressful, at the most) inside our industry. Frequently field teams are pitted against each other in competition – both within their regions and as a company. I have found that by communicating our culture of collaboration and openly sharing best practices, as early as the interview phase (and even, to an extent, in the job description) helps to allay the chances of inviting someone who is disposed to being a “yenta”, or inclined to be, a malcontent onto the team. When the first conflict is ignored or not dealt with appropriately to resolve – it can be destructive choice and damage your culture and team.

As I have mentioned in other posts – I truly believe that instituting a stay interview program in the workplace benefits culture tremendously. Through stay interviews and just elevated communication I can discover the root of conflict before it takes hold, in the majority of cases. It improves overall workplace communications and supports a culture that fosters healthy relationships through respectful communication, which will be embraced by your team.

There will never be a retail workplace that is completely void of conflict (although it would be nice). There will always be personalities that do not gel with others but setting a tone in your retail organization of respect, honesty, communication, and alignment will work to assuage many of the potential conflicts and create an environment that encourages intelligent, mature and responsbile behaviors.

Added December 5th, 2015

Here is a great article from the Harvard Gazette, Beware Those Toxic Co-Workers – it provides some additional information about how challenging toxic people can be to an organization and how it can impact productivity and performance on the rest of the team.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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