Disagreements, differences of opinion and conflicting perspectives on key issues inevitably arise in any context where people are working together. Whilst not all conflict is negative – creative solutions and new ideas can often emerge from the cut and thrust of debate – conflict can frequently become destructive.
1. Be aware of conflict
Keep your eyes and ears open for changes in workplace climate and any early signs of developing conflict. Don’t turn a blind eye to symptoms of hidden conflict. Conflict can only be safely ignored if it is momentary and therefore unlikely to escalate. Ignoring conflict may be an easy option initially, but in most cases it does not help and will create a more difficult situation to resolve later.
2. Take a considered and rational approach to conflict
Stay calm and ensure that you are able to take a considered, rational and impartial approach to the situation. If you are personally involved, you may need to ask someone else to handle the issue as a result. Avoid the temptation to adopt the instinctive reactions of ‘fight or flight’. Neither of these approaches is constructive: ‘flight’ avoids the issue and doesn’t resolve the conflict; ‘fight’ provokes greater conflict and may also intimidate the parties involved. Avoid passive behaviour – do not take an apologetic stance and accept all points of view whether they are right or wrong. Similarly, avoid aggressive behaviour – do not take an authoritarian approach and fail to listen to reasoned argument. Instead, aim to take an assertive stance, while treating all parties with respect and listening to all points of view.
Take care with your use of language and your body language while dealing with people involved in conflict situations. Careless or thoughtless comments can cause offence and exacerbate the conflict. Listen carefully to any evidence offered and take notes. Most importantly, be neutral and focus on the facts.
3. Investigate the situation
Take time to find out what has happened, how people are feeling, and also what the issues are. Don’t pre-judge the issue or jump to conclusions. Speak individually and confidentially to those involved and listen actively to make sure you understand their point of view. Check this by summarising what they have said and reflecting it back to them. Try to identify any underlying causes of conflict which may not be immediately obvious. For example, a member of staff may be in apparent conflict with colleagues as a result of a supervisor is treating them unfairly. Be aware that those involved may have differing perceptions of the same situation. Avoid go into the middle of the argument and taking sides.
4. Decide how to tackle the conflict
Having examined the situation, decide what kind of action is appropriate. Ask yourself:
• Is this a serious matter or relatively trivial? Could it become serious?
• Should you invoke organisational discipline or grievance procedures?
• Is the matter within your sphere of authority or should you refer it to a superior?
• Are any legal issues involved? In situations where the law comes into play (e.g. the Equality Act 2010) it is advisable to consult with your HR department before you take any action
• Would the participation of a trade union representative be appropriate?
• Would it be best to make a ruling on the issue yourself, or would an informal gathering to discuss the problem be helpful? Will the parties accept your ruling?
• Is time needed for heated emotions to subside before moving forward?
The answers to these questions will help you decide what action to take. For all sorts of reasons, there may be situations where you may need to invoke formal processes, including legal proceedings – if in doubt, consult your HR department. However, you can resolve many issues without resorting to costly legal cases. In most cases a mutually agreed mediated solution will be more effective than an imposed solution which may leave all parties dissatisfied. Consider how you can get those involved together to exchange views and explore the issues. Do you have access to mediators (formal or informal)?
5. Let everyone have their say
If you are able to get the parties together, you may be able to reach a satisfactory solution. Take a positive, friendly and assertive approach to the meeting and set ground rules for the session. Assertive behaviour will encourage the parties to express their thoughts honestly and openly, understand the causes of conflict and as a result find solutions. Make sure that everyone has the chance to explain their point of view and also concerns. People will be more willing to relinquish entrenched positions and consider compromise if they feel people understand their point of view and their concerns taken on board.
6. Identify options and agree on a way forward
This is the most important and often the most difficult part of the process. The following steps may be helpful in reaching agreement: • create an atmosphere where all parties are able to speak openly and honestly
• acknowledge emotional issues as these are often at the heart of it and thus will need resolving
• consider carefully the extent to which you need to control the meeting and intervene in the discussion
• explore the reasons for the disagreement
• identify any misconceptions or misunderstandings
• encourage the parties to examine their own positions and identify common ground
• look for points which may be negotiable and seek win/win solutions
• ask the parties to put forward preferred solutions
• allow time for reflection • assess each option and help the parties to agree on which represents the best way forward
• secure the commitment of all parties to any agreement and agree a review point
If no progress is made, a period of reflection may help, but ultimately it may be necessary to bring in another manager or to consider external assistance from a specialist in mediation, ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) or arbitration. In these difficult cases, where complete consensus is impossible, you should aim for a way forward that is acceptable to all, even if it is not the preferred option for all parties involved.
7. Implement what has been agreed
It is important to ensure that everyone is clear about decisions and takes personal responsibility for any agreed actions. In some cases a written agreement may be appropriate. Be careful here if there is any embarrassment caused to any of the parties involved, for example if it involves public apologies.
8. Evaluate how things are going
Continue to keep an eye on the situation and evaluate how well the solution is working. If the problem reappears it may be necessary to take further action.
9. Consider preventative strategies for the future
Think about the lessons learned from the conflict and also the handling of it. Are there improvements for next time? How could you develop your conflict management skills? You may also wish to consider training or other forms of professional development on influencing, mediation or dispute resolution techniques for yourself or a colleague. Looking at the broader context, consider what action can be taken to improve working relationships and encourage a culture of open communication and consultation. Fostering a sense of group identity and encouraging employees to see themselves as working towards a common cause is a good way of lessening conflict in the future. Consider whether you need an organisational procedure for dispute resolution or mediation. Additionally, think about whether there is something about the way the unit works that encourages this conflict behaviour and consequently if this can be ‘fixed’.