Fight or flight – managing conflict in the workplace

How many of you or your staff were hampered by the recent Bus Éireann strike?  Reports from the company suggest that as many as 70,000 commuters were inconvenienced by the stoppage, which thankfully has now been resolved.

As a line manager or team leader, managing conflict in the workplace is an inevitable and unwelcome issue you are going to encounter at some stage in your career.  And while this conflict is unlikely to escalate to all out strike, particularly if you work in the private sector where union representation is low, it’s still an issue that requires some pre-emptive action, careful thought and committed engagement from all parties concerned.

The Labour Relations Commission recorded its highest ever level of complaints from individuals to Rights Commissioners in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available.  A total of 15,671 separate complaints were made, fuelling continuous demand for the organisation’s Rights Commissioners and Conciliation Services.  We strongly suspect that 2011’s annual report will see an upward trend in those numbers.

There are many types of workplace conflict; most are minor which can be dealt with effectively by early intervention and never require recourse to an external third party.  But others are more serious and if left unchecked can have a serious impact on the individuals involved and overall staff morale within the organisation.

The key questions to address are; what kind of workplace conflict are you faced with and what strategy are you going to use to deal with it?

Workplace conflict is quite normal and in some ways can be a healthy by-product of the move towards organisational change.

Conflict may also arise between different business units or departments when resources become tight and individuals are under extreme pressure to perform.   These conflicts can intensify in periods of market downturn and profit pressures.   Understanding the triggers and drivers of conflict is perhaps the first step in ultimately resolving it.

But there is one common denominator – problems generally arise where a perceived conflict arises between employees or employees and management in terms of how they work towards a common organisational goal.

In the case of Bus Éireann, management believes that the future viability of the company needs to be secured through payroll cuts while workers believe that these savings can be found elsewhere.   The secret to resolving this and other forms of workplace conflict is to communicate and compromise but this has to be a two-way process.

Workplace conflict based on personality clashes are also quite common and in some ways are more difficult to deal with.  Clashes fuelled by sometimes irrational emotional reactions are more difficult to manage by their very nature.  How often have you heard a colleague utter the words “just because I work with someone, this doesn’t mean that I have to like them” and very often people allow their feelings to get in the way of sound, objective decision-making.

Communication is the key to resolving all types of workplace conflict.  Early intervention from line managers and an appropriate HR professional can go a long way to preventing a situation where conflict is “swept under the carpet” and ill feeling festers to the point that valuable employees are lost through premature resignation and in the worst case, an early departure to the competition.

Conflict resolution at all levels through the organisation requires strong leadership.  It’s very easy to adopt an ‘ostrich’ mentality and hope that the problem will go away.  But it takes a strong, well-trained individual to recognise workplace conflict and an even stronger one to tackle it head on.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean trying to resolve the issue alone.  It could mean reaching out to a professional HR staff member to draw on their expertise, in recognition of the fact that your own resolution skills are not sufficient to achieve a successful outcome.

From an organisational perspective, it makes a lot of sense to have line managers trained to recognise the early signs of organisational conflict.  Documented policy should be put in place to deal with workplace conflict and all managers and employees need to be made aware of it.  Staff need to know that there is a defined process where grievances or interpersonal difficulties can be highlighted and addressed without prejudice.

Ensuring that your organisation’s HR professional has some mediation skills is also desirable.  The ability to repair a severely damaged working relationship requires skill – the ability to listen to both sides in the conflict and understand the verbal and non-verbal elements expression of issues.  Getting both parties around the table and facilitating an unbiased process which identifies an outcome acceptable to all is the ultimate objective.

On May 27th, 2013, posted in: Blog by
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