We all know that workplace conflict is an expensive phenomenon. Aside from the misery that it can cause within the workforce, it can have a direct impact upon absence levels, instances of stress and productivity. However, most of us – including the most able of managers – find it difficult to respond to conflict and disputes effectively.
Prevention is definitely better than cure, but conflict can even occur in positive working environments. It’s therefore essential that an organisation’s management team has the skills and knowledge to nip problems in the bud. If they can’t do this, disputes can escalate to grievances and employment tribunal claims.
Many people may not realise, or not even give it a thought, that workplace conflict isn’t just something for big businesses. Small businesses and start-up companies are also susceptible to problems that can arise in any workplace anywhere of any size. In fact, these conflicts could possibly cause more problems as there are not so many employees there and some may feel that there is no escape from whatever is happening. There may well be only one department and the employee or employees in question may be experiencing conflict with all the other members of the company.
There are many different ways this can be dealt with, here are just a few:
Make employees aware of the damage – both personal and organisational – that disputes can cause and train them to handle disagreements and arguments in a more productive manner. Conflict is not a battle that can be won; everyone who is involved gets hurt in some way. A working atmosphere that is poisoned by regular bouts of bad temper and inappropriate comments will never be one that motivates staff.
Train managers and employees in the value of co-operation, teamwork and listening to others’ points of view. This can be achieved through role-playing exercises which are facilitated by an expert in resolving workplace conflict. Managers should lead by example and demonstrate positive language and behaviour. By doing this, they will encourage an open culture where employees will have the skills to discuss problems honestly and reach agreement on what need to be done to solve them.
Analyse the sources of conflict occurring in your workplace and identify action plans to address them. The main causes included personality clashes, an aggressive culture, poor communications channels, differing values, under-performance from certain individuals or departments and a lack of resources. Again, tactics that encourage collaboration or compromise are generally the best ways to minimise the sources of workplace conflict. On top of this, a no-blame culture will encourage staff to admit mistakes and correct them in a positive way.
Using an external mediator is a tried and tested method of resolving difficult situations at work. While there is obviously a cost involved, companies often find that the amount they spend is less than the price of doing nothing. In addition, a trained and expert mediator will be able to produce faster and more positive results. Over half of companies that responded to a 2011 CIPD survey on conflict management reported that a benefit of using commercial mediation was the avoidance of employment tribunal claims.
Whatever solutions you adopt, make sure that you apply the SMART principles: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. At both individual dispute and overall strategic levels, everyone must be clear on what will happen and what success looks like. It’s also crucial that you monitor the results of your actions so that you know which tactics to use in the future and which to avoid.