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Don't Just Quash Conflict -- Resolve It

Managing conflict a practical guide to resolution in the workplace.

In my new book, Managing Conflict: A Practical Guide to Resolution in the Workplace (Kogan Page, 2017), I set out to examine the effects of conflict within organizations. My aim is to raise awareness that there is a wide range of approaches for managing conflict that are significantly better than traditional, litigation-inspired grievance or disciplinary procedures. However, to manage conflict at work, it is important to understand its life cycle: how it forms, how it develops, how we react to it and how it can be resolved. My book provides a detailed analysis of the life cycle of a conflict as well as tips and hints for spotting, preventing and managing conflict effectively.

Types of Conflict

There are two types of conflict at work.

The first type of conflict is one that we are all aware of. This is dysfunctional conflict. It goes by many names: grievance, bullying, harassment, feud, quarrel, row, complaint, battle and war, for example. This is the kind of conflict that costs money, wastes time and creates stress. HR and business leaders have spent many years crafting policy frameworks and operating procedures that aim to minimize the damage done by dysfunctional conflict. The hope has always been that these policies and procedures will spit out two happy people and that a just and fair outcome will be achieved. The harsh reality is this doesn't work. This approach is reductive, it infantilizes the workforce, it polarizes the parties, and it encourages dogma and intransigence. This is not justice and fairness. This is a mirage of justice wrapped in the illusion of procedural fairness.

The second type of conflict is not so widely recognized. This is functional conflict. It goes by many names, including healthy debate, dialogue, disagreement and problem-solving consensus building. Functional conflict is at the heart of every healthy, happy and harmonious relationship.

There are three core elements to functional conflict:

  • Dialogue.
  • Empathy.
  • Insight.

The problem is that many HR teams have become so obsessed with applying increasingly complex and cumbersome policies and procedures that they have lost sight of the fundamentals of how to manage conflict, change, crisis and controversy effectively. The worst example of this is the traditional grievance process, which creates a culture that is extraordinarily damaging. It kills the working relationship. Dead.

Developing a Total Conflict Management System

More and more organizations are reframing their approach and are focusing on promoting functional conflict among their workforce rather than waiting for dysfunctional conflict to manifest and then (over)reacting to it when it does.

The following list sets out 10 steps that more and more organizations are using to create a resolution culture rather than a grievance culture. These 10 steps, when combined, create a powerful and highly effective process called a Total Conflict Management System:

  1. Understand the real cost of conflict and build a business case for resolutions that link the impact of conflict management to employee engagement, time spent, money, health and well-being, performance, productivity, reputation, customer experience, and overall business effectiveness.
  2. Replace the traditional grievance and bullying policy with a single resolution policy. This delivers significant benefits due to its being a proactive, person-centered, values-based approach for managing conflict. The focus of the resolution policy is about building trust, promoting dialogue and encouraging collaborative problem-solving. Rather than lodging a grievance, employees make a "request for resolution." Imagine that—no more grievances!
  3. Align the core values of your organization with your strategy, leadership competencies, management behaviors, employee experience and ultimately customer experience. If your values are the conscience of your organization, then it follows that your HR systems and your management behaviors should be fully aligned to them.
  4. Communicate with and engage your workforce. This new approach may be misunderstood by some; as a result, people may question its validity and its purpose. Develop a coherent communications and engagement plan to ensure that people feel engaged, that they trust what you are doing, and that they are given a voice in the design and implementation of managing conflict strategy.
  5. Enhance the use of "resolution triage assessments." HR professionals deliver a proactive assessment of request for resolution—a triage. They then allocate cases to the most appropriate route to resolution. In many instances, this may be an early resolution meeting, but it can also include a facilitated conversation or mediation.
  6. Promote early resolution meetings. These are simply conversations that happen between two or more work colleagues or between an employee and a manager. It is vital that managers are trained to have confident conversations and to promote resolution. Listening, asking questions, summarizing, reframing and principled negotiation can all help to make conflict functional and prevent it from becoming dysfunctional.
  7. Increase the use of facilitated conversations. More and more organizations are using a co-facilitation model where the union and HR or a manager pair up to facilitate a conversation. It requires a bit of training and practice to get it right, but—wow!—the impact can be extraordinary.
  8. Promote mediation and develop a mediation scheme. Organizations big and small are embedding mediation schemes and training people to work as in-house mediators. Effective mediation can result in many thousands—and in some cases millions—of dollars saved. Embedding an internal mediation scheme ensures that you have a rapid response team that can resolve even the most complicated disputes, including bullying, harassment and discrimination.
  9. Enhance the tripartite relationship between HR, managers and unions. A truly integrated approach for managing conflict will not work unless HR, managers and employee reps/unions work collaboratively. This relationship is at the heart of effective employee relations, and it is fundamentally important in terms of making a shift from dysfunctional to functional conflict. Managing conflict is a true test of the pluralist workplace. It's important to get it right.
  10. Measure the impact of resolution. Managing conflict strategy will create some obvious and perhaps less obvious benefits. Your case management systems and the use of information systems will allow you to continually monitor, evaluate and adapt your approach.

Much of this may seem like common sense. However, existing policies and procedures often inhibit common sense. If the future of work is human; if building and maintaining trust and resilience is important; if you want to create a happy, healthy and harmonious workforce; and if you want to deliver HR services that are aligned to your core values, the best possible thing you can do right now is take your grievance procedure to the nearest trash can. It's time for a resolution revolution.

David Liddle is CEO of The TCM Group, the United Kingdom's leading mediation and resolution consultancy. He is a leading authority on all aspects of workplace mediation and resolution and the founding president of the Professional Mediators' Association. 


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