Removing Conflict

Thursday, October 1, 2009 - 09:12

Conflict resolution is a critical managerial skill, but it is often dumped in the too-hard basket while issues are left to fester. Amanda Lohan reports.

Time alone does not heal all wounds, just ask Karen. It's been months since she first locked horns with Lisa, a feisty co-worker, but merely recounting the saga still brings fresh tears...

"Somewhere along the line," says Karen, "there was a breakdown in communication. We weren't openly communicating about work-related matters, and eventually we couldn't even manage to be polite or civil to each other.

"Management's reaction was very limited at first. The direct manager was in a very difficult position because he was friends with both of us. I think that neither of us wanted to put him in an awkward position. It took both of us crying (separately) for him to realise just how bad the situation was." Karen's story is by no means unique.

Andrew Heys, Lecturer in Management at Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM), is a specialist in conflict resolution, and has consulted to major corporate players including Commonwealth Bank, Google and National Australia Bank.

Heys draws a line between workplace disputes and workplace conflict, and says that the two call for different approaches to resolution.

"Disputes are those everyday common problems that seem to crop up in any workplace, such as 'Whose job is it to do that?' or 'Who gets the commission?'" he says. "Disputes are usually settled, with a decision made by the manager and parties agreeing to abide by that decision.

"Conflict, on the other hand, tends to be a more emotional, prolonged, intensely felt experience.

"To resolve conflict means devoting time to understanding the conflict and what contributed to it, and perhaps professional support."

With a full in-tray, many managers see conflict as a side issue from the real job of getting work done. But if the true role of the manager is to be an effective leader, conflict resolution must be integrated with those more tangible functions.

Mark Heaysman, Group CEO of workplace support consultancy, Diversity@Work, says that there are a number of ways that managers can act in advance to defuse the negative behaviours that lead to conflict.

"Practically speaking, the manager must ensure employees are free to speak openly," says Heaysman. "This may involve the setting up of a formal whistleblowing policy, or the nomination of a contact officer, or similar resource."

Conflict resolution training
Heys agrees, and notes that this arrangement can be achieved, even in smaller organisations, by offering communication and conflict-resolution training, or off-site bonding exercises.

"The manager must be very clear with employees about their obligation to keep matters confidential, and honour their own commitment to confidentiality, for example by locking files away," he says.

Heys goes on to say that organisations are increasingly articulating corporate values, which can be a useful anchor point in conflict resolution. By referring back to corporate policies, a manager can easily pick up on behaviour that falls outside of acceptable guidelines.

Heaysman advises that training and awareness programs are a good way for managers to demonstrate their commitment to what is put
on paper. One practical process is 'drip-feeding education', where notes and reminders are distributed around the organisation to gradually educate and reinforce the message to employees about their rights and responsibilities. Heaysman is also quick to draw a clear distinction between the management and leadership approaches to conflict resolution.

"While the management approach centres on making a decision by declaration and forcing employees to comply, the leadership approach is far more sustainable, as the people that were a part of the problem are being called on to try and help solve it. Goals and time frames are set, and responsibilities are put back on those involved so that they take ownership of the problem, and its resolution."

Many managers have a tendency to ignore conflict and hope it goes away, not realising that 'going away' may mean the loss of a valued employee.

Indeed, even when managed successfully, managers must acknowledge that conflict has the potential to resurface. Striking an agreement as to how similar situations will be dealt with is the key.

Playing fair
For a manager, maintaining objectivity can be the hardest part of conflict resolution. Here are some simple ways to overcome your own personal bias to assess the issue at hand:

  1. Use as many sources of data as you can gather and make sure you get all the facts. Focus on root causes rather than peripheral behaviours.
  2. Don't take one person's version of the situation as fact, usually two or more perspectives will need to be taken into consideration.
  3. Since the majority of workplace conflict stems from miscommunication, engage active listening skills to ensure each fact is completely understood before moving to the next.
  4. Some issues have a long gestation period, so remember that the most obvious cause may not be the root cause.
  5. Recognise differences between those involved, and isolate any existing prejudices or stereotypes at play.
  6. Avoid getting caught up in the blame game. Your objective should be to achieve a mutually beneficial result for all involved.
  7. Separate any performance issues from the conflict issue. Acknowledge any bias towards high-performing employees.
  8. If you are unable to separate yourself from the issue, seek advice or assistance from a neutral third party.