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Dina Eisenberg
Communication Strategist
Oakland, California
Extraordinarily helpful
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Missing at Work: Are Your Employees all There?

Office troubles. Susan isn't talking to Ellen and Alan is avoiding them both. Employees come to work, but do they have their minds on business? Learn four tips for you to manage conflict and get back to work.
Written Jun 21, 2009, read 1078 times since then.


Billions of dollars in lost productivity is a result of a new phenomenon called presenteeism, according to the Harvard Business Review.  Is your business losing out too?

Presenteeism refers to  employees who go to work ill when suffering from the flu, cold, depression or other ailments.  Those employees impact productivity and actually spread illness.  They sense, whether from their employer or from the tough economy, they will suffer a personal loss to their perceived reputation if they don’t come to work.  Call it the ‘good trouper’ mentality.

Missing at Work

Workers also try to be good troupers when workplace conflict arises.  Troubled by a harsh word or misunderstanding, your employee will be distracted and fairly unproductive until he or she can figure out the next step, which often involves avoiding contact or creating elaborate ‘work-arounds’ that slow progress.  It’s common for employees to avoid conflict until it escalates to a level that seems unmanageable.  Feelings of frustration and helplessness grow so large employees become what I call MAW- Missing at Work.  Their bodies are present but their minds are gone, obsessed with what to do or say next to get out of the conflict.  No real work can be done.

Missing at Work carries similar financial losses as presenteeism.  Discontent and mistrust spread as readily as the flu when a team is infected by a lingering disagreement.  Calculate those sick days, schedule delays, and time spent in meetings (and the water cooler) discussing the issue and the costs are significant.  And, that doesn’t include the potential costs of losing a valued employee and hiring/training a new one.  Wise business owners strive to manage, not avoid, conflict and prevent it when possible.

What Can a Business Owner Do?

What’s the solution to MAW?  Take action.  Employees expect their employer to manage the work environment.   Here are a few suggestions to keep your workplace healthy.

  • Understand your own comfort level with disagreement

You know the old expression that the ‘fish rots from the head down’.  The way you handle disputes (or not) will inform your managers and employee’s behavior.  Getting a conflict coach will help you be effective with your employees and sharpen your negotiation skills.

  • Set expectations and guidelines around conflict

Set the expectation that you want your folks to address conflict early and resolve it collaboratively, preferably without your input.  In small businesses where ‘everyone’s family,’ there’s a temptation for employees to go to ‘mom or dad’ for the solution.  Don’t take the bait. 

  • Eliminate blame. 

Typically, the focus is on who did what when trying to resolve issues, however, that generally leads to an unending game of  finger-pointing, not real change.  Create an informal debriefing process where your folks collaboratively determine what happened and how to restructure communication, systems, and responsibilities so it doesn’t happen again. 

Get skilled up.

Provide coaching and training so employees have the language and skills needed to communicate clearly, listen well and find workable solutions. Find a coach who specializes in business disputes and communication to share tactics that fit your company culture. (Try your local mediation program if you're on a budget)

When your employees feel heard, safe and in control of their work life, you get the prize: a much more pleasant and innovative workplace.  And that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Learn more about the author, Dina Eisenberg.

Comment on this article

  • Bookkeeper/QuickBooks Trainer 
Clackamas, Oregon 
Brenda Keomany
    Posted by Brenda Keomany, Clackamas, Oregon | Jun 25, 2009

    Good thoughts

  • writer/researcher 
seattle, Washington 
Liz Vedder
    Posted by Liz Vedder, seattle, Washington | Jun 25, 2009

    Great article! Conflicts of personalities in the workplace is a common problem, especially in small companies.

  • Inspirationalist / Motivational Speaker / Aflac Acct Mgr 
Fernandina Beach, Florida 
Mark Combs
    Posted by Mark Combs, Fernandina Beach, Florida | Jul 05, 2009

    Not long ago the office environment of a friend of mine was nearly destroyed by the very thing your article addresses. Eventually it trickled out of the office area and into the warehouse, manufacturing and delivery departments.

    It affected the job performance of nearly every employee and hindered production in a dramatic way.

    The frequency of employees calling in sick increased and some eventually just left entirely. The stress level throughout the company stayed at defcon 5 on most days.

    It reached a point where no one was actually sure where it all began, but no one liked working there and company morale was hopelessly tanked.

    Hearing about the daily drama was exhausting and I didn't even work there.

    The message of this article is something that most company leaders just turn off, but it is a message that they need to hear in greater detail.

    VERY good topic filled with insight. Thanks!