The words matter. A common source of conflict is when actions do not correlate with said words. It’s human nature to want to trust others and believe that the words expressed will also match the actions of the individual. Once trust has been broken, the words lose value, and we start looking for meaning in the actions.
A high percentage of the workplace conflicts I mediate could have been mitigated if the employee’s supervisor had listened, been curious and paid attention to the actions. When an employee brings forth an interpersonal issue with another, the employee is probably asking for help and giving you some information. For example, Mary reported to her supervisor Frances that she is “uncomfortable working with Jo”; Mary’s words were factual to her. Frances followed up by asking Jo if there were any issues with Mary. Jo said “no”. Frances forgot about Mary’s words. A few weeks later, Mary has filed a discrimination complaint against Jo. Mary didn’t feel heard, the situation was not attended to, and she took action.
Words can create conflict when the actions do not match. When an employee expresses an issue with another, listen with an unbiased lens, be curious, and make a point to observe the actions of both employees. Being transparent with employees about the actions you are taking based on the words you have heard, builds your credibility as a conflict competent leader, and demonstrates empathy. If you don’t feel like you have the time, evaluate the cost to the organization if it escalates to an EEO complaint, the loss of productivity or the employee.
The words do matter, but the actions speak louder and demonstrate true intent.