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No matter how hard organisations try to avoid it, the very practice of bringing diverse groups of people together to do work means it’s not just all the good stuff – ideas, innovation – that comes from collaboration. Unfortunately, working together involves some of the bad stuff too, and top among these is ‘conflict’.
According to CIPD’s April 2015 survey report on workplace conflict, “Four in 10 UK employees report some form of interpersonal conflict at work in the last year”, pointing out that incidents are most likely to occur “with one’s line manager, followed by colleagues and people who one’s line manager reports to”.
But conflict doesn’t have to be an insurmountable problem. We teamed up with the UK’s leading dispute management consultant, the employee conflict mediator and employer-employee relations guru, Josh Sunsoa. He works with some of the UK’s leading employers, including Burberry and Discovery Park, and here he gives his top tips about how to put steps in place to resolve conflict in the workplace:
“Managers obsess about following policy and procedure, but few understand the behaviours they should adopt – behaviours that can often make a more meaningful difference. At the start of any conflict situation, it’s the manager’s job simply to find out what the issue is. The key here is to be open and be genuinely interested in hearing both sides of a story. Composure is a terribly important attribute to have in these circumstances. A general lack of interest will often be reflected in your body language, and if employees think you’re being standoffish or uninterested, then they won’t believe that you’re going to be willing to reach balanced solutions. Managers have to be accountable for their own actions and behaviours.
“In times of conflict – especially if there are accusations of bullying or other disciplinary matters involved – employees will rightly get emotional. Employers shouldn’t quash this, but they should give people time to cool off, if necessary. If you try to talk to people when they’re upset, you’re never going to arrive at a workable resolution. Worse still, you can even end up worsening the conflict.”
“You don’t have to get heavy-handed. Conflict arises because small matters haven’t been nipped in the bud early and have been allowed to grow much bigger. Most conflict is low-level stuff, which can be dealt with quickly and without fuss. Why? Because, in reality, many things in the workplace can be solved with a simple, quiet word. I will nearly always look to explore things informally first, because initially, what you should really be doing is starting a fact-finding mission, rather than being full judge and jury. Be informal, but know how to use formal processes when necessary – and once you have more information at your disposal.”
“Most of the people I encounter in difficult situations get conflict wrong because they try to find the solution to a problem without really understanding it first. You need to understand why people have a problem in the first place. Only then can you listen and start to formulate plans for resolving it. Do the preparation work first to ensure you have the full facts.”
“There will be pressure to resolve conflict quickly, but remember, you’re not there to agree or to disagree, or indeed to take sides – because sometimes those around you will press you into positions you should steer clear of. Ultimately, your role is simply to find solutions. You should aim to de-personalise things as much as possible, but, above all, take responsibility for how you conduct the process. If an employee comes to you, it’s not acceptable to simply pass it up to HR. Yes, take advice from them, but make sure you’re the contact person dealing with the problem – from start to finish.”
“Resolving conflict is ultimately about hearing and resolving two points of view, so adopt a conversational, coaching style of language. Express yourself clearly, and you will get clarity back. If employees want it – particularly those who may be facing disciplinary action – grant permission for witnesses to be involved. Very often, their involvement and input might be able to throw light on the situation. Listen first and react later.
“Remember, you’re representing the employer. Conflict should be dealt with on your terms. Be mindful that employees may take things personally, and equally, that they will want a speedy solution. But that doesn’t mean you can’t conduct things at your own pace. Don’t let anyone rush you.”