Conflict, complaints and disputes present many challenges and can be a significant drain on cost and time. At face value a conflict situation in the workplace may seem to be relatively simple to manage. It’s easy to think that all it takes is some sensible or encouraging words, and everybody will go back to work in harmony. But once managers or HR try to intervene, they can find it more difficult than anticipated and things can escalate rapidly. If not attended to skilfully, even the smallest issues can expand quickly and become destructive.
There are however some steps you can take to better manage workplace conflict. Here’s how:
- The first step – Understanding is key
Where possible, do not intervene before you understand the situation. Make sure you gather sufficient information before you determine the best course of action. This can be done fairly quickly in most instances. When gathering information, ensure that you have obtained information from both individuals, or from everyone involved if there are more than two people implicated.
- Don’t make assumptions
Avoid making assumptions based on one person’s perspective of the situation. Understandably, sometimes managers or HR think that they will be able to understand the situation by asking only one person to explain it (e.g. the person that complains to you). This may cause more problems further down the track.Also avoid making assumptions on what you have observed as a manager, or on hearsay. Managers are often also tempted to get intelligence from others in order to tread lightly before they intervene. This can backfire.
- Identify the best course of action – make a decision or facilitate discussion
Once you have understood the situation more clearly from all perspectives, you will be in a much better position to determine the best course of action. If the situation can be quickly resolved by a fair decision – then make that decision. This may apply, for example, when a conflict between team members is related to roles and responsibilities.
- Communicate decisions appropriately
Be aware that when you are informing those involved about the decision, you need to ensure that you give the same information at the same time – so there is no room for misinterpretation or speculation. For example, have them all present in the same meeting, or email the same information to both parties.
- Resolve with parties together as soon as possible – not apart
If the situation cannot be resolved readily by a clear decision, then work out if the situation can be improved by one of the following: improved communication, problem solving or negotiation between those involved. If that’s the case, try to get the conflicting parties together as soon as possible.Managers or HR staff may try and talk to the people involved separately to resolve the situation, but that can leave it open to speculation and misinterpretation and make it worse. It may also compromise perceptions of fairness.
- Facilitate skilfully – be aware of making the situation worse
While facilitating a discussion between people as soon as possible is an important tool to defuse conflict, be aware that conflict can also be made worse by this unless the facilitator has adequate skills. Conflict can escalate significantly in such a meeting unless it is expertly handled and channelled in a way that is more constructive going forward.Some of the pitfalls when facilitating staff in conflict are allowing people to just “dump” on each other, which can inflame the situation – particularly when it is in front of a manager. In addition, staff will often feel anger, mistrust and hurt feelings, and therefore express anger or cry. An untrained “facilitator” may not feel comfortable handling these elements, and it takes a considerable level of skill to turn difficult communication and behaviour between people into a productive work relationship.
- Make sure outcomes and next steps are clear
At the end of any meetings be clear about the outcome and expectations to resolve the situation. Ideally, the facilitated meeting needs to turn the situation into something productive and result in realistic and practical outcomes, such as actionable next steps. Clearly state whether the situation is resolved at this point in time, clarify the actions to be taken, and outline a pathway for them to raise issues in future.
Workplace conflict is a normal part of working life. Managers and HR are generally advised to have competencies to manage difficult situations effectively, and to prevent them from escalating. Mediation Pathways offers mediation and other training to assist in managing workplace disputes effectively.
Mediation training can lead to National Accreditation as a Mediator if required. For accreditation an assessment is required that forms part of the five-day course.
Visit mediationpathways.com.au to enrol now or to make an enquiry.