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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters



Employment Today Magazine

Hooray for conflict

Few businesses have the tools in place to enable employees to feel empowered to handle conflict, says Richard Binner. He looks at how to work through conflict constructively.

The potential for conflict exists everywhere, yet why is it that some organisations seem to thrive and others languish due to the inevitable conflicts that will occur?

One myth that should be quickly removed from your thoughts is that all conflict is a bad thing. While unproductive and toxic conflict definitely exists, it is often because there hasn’t been any attempt for early resolution that situations escalate. Through careful and considered handling of conflict, real benefits in terms of productivity, engagement and wellbeing can be achieved by any organisation.

COMMON CAUSES OF CONFLICT IN THE WORKPLACE

In simple terms, organisations are built around relationships. If any of your internal relationships aren’t working, the business will not reach its full potential.

You can have the best product or service in the world, but if you can’t work though conflict constructively and preserve your working relationships while doing so, then your business will not achieve what it’s set out to do. So, outside of people what are the common causes for conflict?

  • • 
    Poor communication. When there is a dearth of information, we will often fill in the gaps with our own perspectives of what we think should or shouldn’t be happening, or worse, what we think is happening. Even if communications are of a very good quality, ensuring the right people have access to the right information is equally as important.
  • • 
    Outdated policies. Many organisations are not reviewing policies regularly enough to keep up with changes occurring in the market, or their businesses. Not having robust, up-to-date policies can contribute to employees not being adequately empowered or not understanding their jobs.
  • • 
    Misunderstood processes. Most employees want to do the right thing and produce good results for the organisation; however, inadequate induction or ongoing training can raise significant issues for employees’ ability to be able to deliver. Not knowing processes to follow can cause both anxiety and tension in the workplace.
  • • 
    Misaligned goals. Too often conflict occurs when business goals or objectives are not adequately documented or explained to staff. The most common instances of this would include poorly worded KPIs and even inequitable KPIs across team members. If employees believe the goalposts are always moving, it reduces their confidence.
  • • 
    Poor management. Most organisations have a set of values they hold to, yet employees often feel that people, particularly management, are not being fair or equitable in their application of these values, or there are different rules for different parts of the organisation.
  • • 
    Poor work environment. Employees spend a significant amount of their days at work, so having a comfortable and safe environment is important for the general welfare of staff. Failure to provide this can lead to not only conflict but serious health and safety issues and loss of productivity.
  • • 
    Personalities. The uniqueness of people gives rise to potential conflict as different styles mix within teams or across the organisation. Often these conflicts can arise when a new person joins a team and the team dynamic changes. Conflicts are not only personality based, they could be whole teams in conflict with other teams.
  • • 
    Bullying or harassment. The threshold for bullying is quite a high bar; however, no organisation should rely on meeting a threshold before acting on bullying or harassment issues. For the person in the situation, it is very much real and something that should be worked through in an appropriate way.
  • • 
    Smelly food. You’re joking, right? Actually no—often conflict can take hold as a result of not feeling confident enough to address a situation, as small as it might be, that is causing some distress. As a result, conflict and productivity issues can take hold very quickly.

In spite of these known causes, very few businesses are what I would call conflict ready, that is, having in place a variety of tools to enable employees to feel empowered to handle conflict. So, what can an employer do to ensure employees are conflict ready?

GET CONFLICT READY

First, don’t feel you have to do it all by yourself. There are organisations, like FairWay, who specialise in all aspects of conflict management.

Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, communication is often a root cause of issues, so ensure these three actions always occur within your organisation:

1.
Find ways to hear the voice of employees.
2.
Act upon the information you receive.
3.
Ensure employees are equipped to have difficult conversations in a respectful and sensitive way.

Thirdly, be proactive. Prepare simple strategies to deal with or prevent conflict:

  • • 
    Accept that we do have to talk about conflict. Conflict is not bad. Unresolved conflict, which becomes unhealthy and toxic, is what we want to avoid. We can do that, in part, by planning for it.
  • • 
    Consider adopting a conflict management plan (See Tips for creating a conflict management plan).
  • • 
    Keep an open mind and try not to react (See Top 6 tips for handling conflict).
  • • 
    Where appropriate consult with employees—they know what is going on at the coalface.
  • • 
    Remain impartial, your ideas are not always the best way or the only way to do things.
  • • 
    Use active listening and facilitative questioning techniques (See Facilitative questioning).
  • • 
    Have robust policies and procedures in place and don’t review them in isolation of the employees who actually do the work.
  • • 
    Treat all employees fairly. For example, have a transparent policy around pay, incentive/bonus schemes.
  • • 
    Explain changes clearly—uncertainty in any organisation causes problems. Be clear on why change is happening, what the desired outcomes are and how it will be measured.
  • • 
    Collect information relating to workplace conflicts and assess if there are any themes that might need to be addressed. This is a longer term strategy that could yield benefit.

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?

You may be reading the information above and be thinking “so what”. One of the most significant benefits of front-footing conflict is staff engagement and morale—having a framework to work through conflict helps creates a foundation of respect and trust.

Also, the cost of conflicts can be quite staggering. In fact, the latest data from MBIE estimates that the direct cost of employment conflicts in New Zealand is $440m per annum, with a number of industry participants thinking that is a conservative estimate. The cost of conflict can be thought of in three ways:

  • • 
    Quantifiable costs (loss of staff, production problems, reduction in profit);
  • • 
    Unquantifiable costs (loss of productivity potential, loss of management time);
  • • 
    Relationship costs (emotional damage, reputational damage).

EMBRACE CONFLICT

By planning for and embracing conflict, “good outcomes” can be realised by:

1.
Asking questions that will encourage conversation and healthy debate while you work toward reaching clear agreements on how to work through conflict and preserve relationships. A strong relationship means people are able to work together constructively, regardless of conflict.
2.
Talking about conflict—let employees know it’s okay to have differing points of views or opinion and that these are valued by the organisation. In fact, it should be recognised that new ideas, processes and innovations often come about through time where there is disagreement
3.
Realising business is not a democracy but, listening to, understanding and acting on the things that really matter to staff may lead to invaluable changes that help harness the value conflict brings.

Don’t be afraid of conflict—if harnessed well, it is a valuable source of improvements for organisations.

TIPS FOR CREATING YOUR CONFLICT MANAGEMENT PLAN

  • • 
    How are we going to raise conflict issues with each other?
  • • 
    What are our conflict resolution styles? Are they compatible across the team?
  • • 
    If not, how do we agree to work through conflict in ways that address all resolution styles?
  • • 
    What other agreements can we reach now about how we will engage with each other in a period of conflict?
  • • 
    What outcomes do we want from conflict?
  • • 
    What steps can we build into conflict that enable us to harness any positive change that may come from it?
  • • 
    How should we document how processes and polices, product development, and organisational structures can be improved based on conflict outcomes?
  • • 
    Have we completed annual training in conflict? If not, why?
  • • 
    What conflict have we experienced in the last reporting period? How was it handled?
  • • 
    If we cannot resolve conflict ourselves, what are our escalation steps? How will we engage with a neutral third-party to help us get the relationship back on track?

SIX TOP TIPS FOR HANDLING CONFLICT

1.
Pause. Before reacting, take a moment. This allows you to think before you act.
2.
Stay professional. Don’t get personal.
3.
Ask questions to get to heart of the issue.
4.
Recognise different personalities and approaches.
5.
Be proactive. When things cool down, collaboratively find a way forward.
6.
Reflect. What could I have done differently?

FACILITATIVE QUESTIONING

Active listening is a key component to gaining insight and resolution of conflict. By using facilitative questions, you will be able to more fully understand the perspectives at play. Try using questions like:

  • • 
    Help me understand why this is important to you?
  • • 
    What are two or three words that describe how this has affected you?
  • • 
    What about this situation has upset you the most?
  • • 
    What values have been challenged or what needs have not been met?
  • • 
    How might the other person describe what happened?
  • • 
    How could this be different in the future?
  • • 
    Working well together—what does this look like?

RICHARD BINNER is general manager at FairWay Resolution Limited, New Zealand’s largest dispute resolution and conflict management organisation.

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