Christa Ludlow, Principal Consultant of Weir Consulting, explains how people can deal with conflict in the workplace.
How do I deal with conflict in my team?
Not all conflict at work is destructive. Disagreement about how to approach a task, or solve a problem, can lead to productive new insights if it is respectful and creative. Often, however, our responses to conflict consist of either aggression or avoidance.
Neither of these responses is likely to resolve the issue which has given rise to the conflict. They are more likely to form response patterns or habits which contribute to the continuance of the conflict.
The risks of conflict
Frequent interpersonal conflict in the workplace is associated with higher stress levels, increased employee turnover, absenteeism and “presenteeism” where the employee lacks engagement with their work.
A 2015 study by Dr Rebecca Michalak of PsychSafe which surveyed over 800 lawyers and other professionals, found that poor interpersonal behaviour negatively impacts job satisfaction, wellbeing and commitment. The professionals in the study who had been impacted by poor behaviour were unlikely to report it. They were more likely to resign, retaliate or use other coping mechanisms with varying success. This means that in professional firms, conflict may not receive the attention it deserves.
In addition, prolonged conflict can pose a risk to the health and safety of employees. The person conducting the business or undertaking has an obligation under the work health and safety legislation to manage the risk by eliminating it, so far as reasonably practicable.
The first step is to have a procedure in place to resolve the conflict, such as a grievance or informal resolution procedure, which is easily accessible and known to all employees.
Normally the procedure will involve assessing the conflict by interviewing each party, possibly conducting some fact-finding, and determining the appropriate process to resolve it. This could include any or some of the following:
- speaking directly to the person concerned, possibly with the support of a grievance officer or support person;
- collaborative problem solving, where a manager helps the parties define and negotiate their problem;
- facilitated discussion, led by an experienced impartial third party; or
- mediation conducted by an independent mediator
In some cases, where there has been serious misconduct, serious bullying or sexual harassment, the conflict will probably be unsuitable for alternative dispute resolution and will require a formal investigation.
How to approach the conflict
When assessing the conflict and facilitating discussions, I have found the following tips to be useful:
- Focus on the parties’ interests, rather than on their respective positions
- Draw out what they have in common
- Talk about the behaviour and how it could be different, not what is wrong with the individual and how they should change
- Use a solutions-focused approach. Talk about the future, ask about what is working, look for situations where the conflict or difficult behaviour doesn’t occur
As an example, I was asked to assist with a conflict between a team leader and a senior team member.
The first step was to listen to the two parties to the dispute and assess the situation. The senior team member was resistant to changes being introduced by the team leader. Discussions revealed that both of them shared an interest in the team meeting its targets, as otherwise it might be broken up.
However, the team leader saw the team member as “lazy” and the team member saw the team leader as “disrespectful.” By focusing on each party’s behaviours and their interests in common, rather than where they stood on the new procedures, it was possible to reach a consensus on how each would behave in future towards each other. They were also encouraged to see each other’s perspectives and their individual role in the survival of the team.
If agreement is reached, it is important to document it, but don’t rush to closure. Ask questions to check that you haven’t overlooked anything. For example:
- What tasks need to be performed by each person and when?
- What will happen if there is a problem or obstacle?
- Will the parties need support or coaching in the future?
Make sure that each party is fully aware of what is agreed and what is required of them, and that management has been informed of any steps they need to take to support the resolution.
Christa Ludlow is a lawyer with over 20 years’ experience in employment law and administrative law, and a qualified coach and mediator. She is a Principal Consultant with WEIR Consulting. WEIR provides workplace conflict resolution, investigation, coaching and training services to clients in the public and private sectors. Contact Christa at firstname.lastname@example.org