Train your staff to brainstorm and use consensus decision-making techniques.

Healthy disagreement and the discussion it can generate are very positive influences in any organization. After all, there are always a number of ways to accomplish a given objective and discussing the alternatives often leads to a new approach that ends up being more effective than any of the alternatives might have been. Frankly, that's how most cutting-edge companies stay on the cutting-edge. The challenge becomes managing healthy disagreement and using it to develop new ideas and approaches through group consensus decision-making.

Train your staff in the art of brainstorming so that all ideas are welcome and creativity is encouraged. Then, teach people how to reach a plan of action by using consensus decision-making techniques. This way, potential conflicts turn into a positive discussion of everyone's ideas.

A successful manager can encourage creativity while avoiding unproductive conflicts by recognizing several factors:

Management Must Listen - Most employees want to do a good job, both for their personal gratification and the betterment of the company. People do, however, like to put their “mark” on the things they do, so each employee's opinion should be valued by co-workers and management. Openness to new ideas is a cultural part of the way a business is operated. It's amazing how often employees know exactly what needs to be done to remedy a problem, but they don't share their views. Good managers listen as well as direct! Many workplace conflicts result from employee frustrations with not being heard.

Management Must Communicate - Confusion breeds contempt! Being clear and direct in communicating with employees - both individually and as a group - is a major step toward conflict avoidance. When employees know what the goals and direction of the company are and where they fit in the picture, they are better equipped to help in the effort. And, they are better equipped to understand what's going on around them. Failures in this area are a primary influence on workplace conflicts.

Management Must Empower Employees - Certainly, frustration and confusion created by being “kept in the dark” are major contributors to workplace conflict. Another key factor is a feeling of helplessness when employees feel they can't help themselves, customers or the company. Helplessness breeds frustration! Management should consider the degree to which employees at each level can be empowered to make decisions relevant to their positions and in line with the goals and values of the company. The company must be sure that employees are comfortable in bringing frustrations and needs to management for immediate attention.

Sidebar: Best Practices

Each month, we'll provide proven Best Practices. Readers are encouraged to send along any successful approaches they may be using in managing employees. We will feature the best of them in upcoming columns.

12. Create an environment that encourages open, two-way communication.

There are very few areas of human interaction that couldn't be improved by better communication - and business operations certainly is not an exception. Reasonable people will respond reasonably when provided with the facts, the objectives and a clear understanding of their role in the endeavor. Encourage managers and supervisors to listen at least as much as they talk - to solicit input from employees and act on it when merited. If you treat employees like androids, you should expect them to act like androids! If you expect employees to think, you had better arm them with the facts and be ready to respond to their questions, suggestions and concerns. No one ever said managing a business would be easy!

13. Empower employees to either handle problems or bring them to management's attention.

A healthy workplace is based on trust and mutual respect. Those lofty attributes are easiest achieved when each employee understands and shares the company's goals and sense of purpose. While communication is the key to employee understanding, success often takes more. Success today means management needs to win employees' hearts and minds. It could be said that you win their minds with communication and you win their hearts with the emotional buy-in that comes from empowerment. Empowering an employee doesn't always mean giving him or her decision-making authority. Sometimes it's as little as making them feel more comfortable about bringing a problem or suggestion to their supervisor's attention.