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Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution

Necessary skills for every organizational leader

​Dispute resolution in the workplace is an area that many organizational leaders can improve upon, and HR should be at the forefront of providing the knowledge, skills and resources these leaders need to improve. As an assistant professor of business administration, I am currently developing a six-week course for undergraduate students on workplace dispute resolution. As a consultant, many of my assignments involve resolving disputes, as well as conducting investigations and otherwise holding people accountable for their actions in the workplace.

Conflict itself is not always a bad thing in an organization; in fact, managed conflict leads to organizational growth, change and evolution. The way in which we approach conflict can and will make all the difference. Align the HR strategy regarding conflict management with the strategic goals of the organization.

Applying the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge (SHRM BoCK) will ensure that HR professionals have the knowledge, skills and abilities to strategically guide organizational leaders through conflict management and dispute resolution. The SHRM BoCK's technical competency, HR Expertise, specifically covers these issues in the Employee & Labor Relations functional area.

As HR leaders undertake efforts to ensure the effective management of conflicts and the resolution of disputes in our organizations, here are some things to consider:

  • Training and communication. Because every organization—and often every department—experiences different kinds of conflict, a generic approach to training and communication on conflict management might not be effective. Provide the appropriate resources, examples and discussions necessary for all leaders to be successful. Develop dispute resolution communication materials that embrace the organizational culture. In conducting trainings, open conversation and real-world examples will be necessary.
  • Practice makes improved. It's human nature to avoid dealing with conflict. We cannot assume that anyone who does attempt to deal with conflict is an expert. Practice will improve everyone's skills. Don't be afraid to dry-run real-world situations to help leaders become confident in their approaches to conflict management and dispute resolution.
  • Listen, listen, listen. Dispute resolution skills can be learned through training and practice. But that training needs to have a true focus on listening. Active listening—not just listening in order to respond—during these conversations enables leaders to identify and fully understand the main issues in the conflict or dispute, the better to manage or resolve them.
  • Consistency in process. Consistency is critical to successful dispute resolution, as well as to the development of strong skills in implementing the process. Inconsistency defeats the purpose of having processes and will negatively impact employee morale and workplace culture. Consistency is absolutely necessary to resolve disputes in an organization. Always ask: Are we being consistent in our approach to managing conflict throughout the organization? Are we fully investigating the issues raised by a conflict? Have we reviewed the language currently in use in the organization's handbooks and policies? If discipline or dismissal is being considered, is just cause required and if so, are we utilizing the "seven steps" test

Embrace the opportunity to watch leaders grow and develop the necessary skills to be effective throughout the dispute resolution process.

Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP, owner of Burr Consulting LLC in Elmira, N.Y., co-owner of Labor Love LLC, is an HR consultant, an assistant professor at Elmira College, and an on-call mediator and fact-finder for the New York State Public Employment Relations Board. He holds master's degrees in business administration and in human resources & industrial relations, and a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt.


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