…and how to stop conflict from escalating to a formal process.
What is conflict and why does it happen?
Managing conflict is something that every line manager will face during their career. Conflict ranges from colleagues disagreeing on a decision, to personality clashes, but conflict is also a natural workplace occurrence and doesn’t always have to be negative. Constructive conflict can often help a business or project and can be a catalyst for positive change.
However, poor conflict management can cause employee stress, anxiety or depression and impact workplace productivity. There’s also evidence to suggest a potential for increased conflict as businesses try to adapt to new changes after Covid-19.
Causes of conflict can vary from particular business situations, where employers have control, to personal issues which need to be managed on an individual basis. These issues can be the direct cause of conflict and can lie dormant or be largely ignored, but then come to the fore due to a whole host of reasons.
Personal issues; sickness, poor mental health, home life stress
Inadequate training; of manager and within teams
Lack of equal opportunities
Poor work environment; bullying and harassment, weak internal communication
Organisational changes; increased workload, job insecurity, new performance management systems, new targets, new pay structures
Personality clashes, or a change in team dynamics
Spotting the signs
Sometimes the signs of conflict are obvious, but not always. Line Managers need to be able to pick up the signs of conflict as early as possible. Ignoring a nagging suspicion of underlying tension will increase the risk of matters escalating. Talking to employees individually and collectively will help managers understand and interpret the behaviour of employees. Symptoms of conflict to look out for are:
Drop in motivation
Fall in performance and productivity
Increase in sick leave and absence
Withdrawal and lack of engagement or interaction
Poor scores on employee satisfaction surveys
Knowing who’s involved and what the issues are
The real causes of conflict can be simple, but they can also be complex and deeply felt. Once the cause has been identified, it may be necessary to distinguish between
someone’s position – what they want, and
their interests – why they want something
If each can understand the other’s viewpoint, they may no longer be in conflict as the reason for the conflict may have been a misunderstanding of a person’s behaviour.
Dealing with conflict informally
Although conflict is inevitable, there are steps managers can take to minimise future conflict and there’s a clear benefit to everyone in handling problems as early as possible.
It’s best to start off with informal processes if possible, trying to nip conflict in the bud by having a conversation with the people involved. Where that isn’t enough and a formal grievance is raised, managers should look to employ their internal policies and procedures for handling grievances in order to resolve issues.
Keeping a record
Even if the matter is treated informally, keep a record of how the problem was dealt with.
The record should include:
what the problem was about
what you did (such as have an informal meeting)
what was discussed in any informal chat or meeting
any next steps agreed
the reasons for any next steps
Ensure next steps are clear, specific and measurable. For example, ‘person A will do action B by date C, because of reason D’.
Ask the employee if the problem has now been satisfactorily resolved for them. If it is not, to move things forward next steps can include:
checking next steps put in place have been completed
setting up more informal discussions
finding out if anything else can be done
reminding the employee that they can also raise the grievance formally
Putting systems in place
It’s important to explain business plans and listen to employee concerns, as consultation is the key to involving employees in decision making. Look to balance the needs of the business with the needs of employees to help build an inclusive relationship. Looking at ways of improving work life balance including implementing flexible working arrangements can also go a long way in improving the effectiveness of the business and can lead to better employee engagement and a happier, healthier workforce.
Investing in effective and early resolution
Although conflict is inevitable, there are steps employers can take to minimise future conflict.
Placing greater emphasis on repairing employment relationships and acting early to address performance issues
Training line managers in core people skills to have “quality interactions” with employees and in how to manage conflict when it occurs
Rebalancing policies to decrease the emphasis on legal compliance and to reaffirm the importance of resolution
Consider Mediation – To end conflict, someone and often more than one person has to change the way they behave. It may be necessary to employ the skills of a trained Mediator to achieve this.
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