There are many causes for workplace conflict. It could be as simple as a joke that inadvertently caused offence, a personality clash or something more serious like bullying or micromanagement. Regardless of what might have started it, you can be sure that, if left unchecked, these upsets can fester and quickly become toxic, affecting productivity, client relations and ultimately your bottom line.
While having a clear conflict resolution procedure outlined in your staff handbook is a positive step towards addressing such issues, the issue often lies in the implementation of that process. When an employee is in conflict with a workmate, they tend to avoid any form of direct confrontation. Instead they opt to raise their grievance at a higher level, perhaps with their manager or the business owner.
As every conflict situation is different, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to it. However, equipping staff and management with specific skills can limit the chances of things getting out of hand. Below are three of the most important aspects of preventing and limiting the damage caused by workplace conflicts.
At the root of many workplace conflicts is an underlying lack of communication. Whether it’s between employees, workers and their managers or interdepartmental, failure to effectively communicate, can lead to confusion, frustration, stress, blame and eventually apathy.
Conversely, effective communication generally ensures everyone knows where they stand and what is expected of them. Moreover, by helping your workers develop their communication skills you are equipping them to:
- Better explain what they are working on, any issues they are encountering, the impact of those issues (say to deadlines, product line, etc) and what they require to overcome them
- Better address any problems that may arise, in an amicable and considerate manner. This encourages two-way communication to reach a solution
Conflict Management & Resolution
With the best will in the world, there will be times when tensions bubble over between employees. As team leaders, managers and business owners it is up to you to step in and smooth those choppy waters. Some studies suggest that up to 85 percent of workers have been involved in a conflict at some level during their career, so having the skills to quickly and adequately address the issue is a must for anyone in a leadership role.
There are many conflict management and resolution courses and training programmes – including those offered by The HR Department – for managers and business owners. Investing in such training can pay dividends further down the line, should you be faced with a workplace conflict.
For most SMEs, quality training in the above two areas should help your organisation through all but the toughest conflict situations. That said, there are certain times when it makes more sense to engage an independent mediator. These include:
- the issues are long-standing
- the issues are complex
- there is a risk of an adverse action
- the disputants request one
- internal resolution attempts have not worked
In recent years, mediation has steadily gained a strong reputation across Ireland and the UK as a viable – and highly effective – means of resolving conflicts, without having to go down the legal route.
As an external third party, an independent mediator is not acting on behalf of any of the parties involved in the conflict. Their purpose is to create an environment in which those concerned can hear, be heard and reach an agreement as to how the issue can be resolved and their working relationship progresses.
Mediation should not be confused with a workplace investigation. While it can be an effective post-investigation tool, in mediation, no one is being accused, evidence is not required and the focus is primarily geared towards moving forward, rather than tracing over the issues that led to the conflict.
Roisin O’Neill is a professional mediator and head of The HR Department’s new mediation department