The biggest problem with Conflict Resolution Strategies in any workplace is that they do not exist. Most organisations have operated on the reasonable basis that a Disciplinary and Grievance Process is enough. Coupled with that is an often-reactive approach to conflict as and when it arises and a hope that HR will “deal with it”.
In the modern workplace we have become accustomed to increasingly good leadership and management practice. There is also increased acknowledgement of the benefits of engagement and an awareness of the causes, impact and effects of mental ill health. Organisations are also, increasingly, using mediation to deal with intractable disputes. What a good conflict resolution strategy will do, is enhance and build on those capabilities ensuring that the approach to conflict resolution is clear and structured.
So, what is a Good, Bad or Ugly Conflict Resolution Strategy? It will depend of course from organisation to organisation. Conflict reflects the personality and priorities of the business and so there is never a one size fits all. Nevertheless, the following guidelines form the basis upon which you will be able to anticipate whether the conflict in your organisation will be a force for good or your Achilles heel.
A good conflict resolution strategy will incorporate the following components:
- A Conflict Audit
Although this can be light touch, understanding the impact of conflict on the organisation is crucial to working out how to address it. This can be done through a Conflict Audit. There will be a number of factors that can be measured in the audit. They will range from the costs of time spent on the conflict, opportunity cost, sick days and mental ill health. They will also include feedback from employees about how they experience conflict. The answers to these questions will then help define actions and infrastructure to deal with these situations. The 7 Principles of Conflict Resolution set out a set of conflict audits to enable a 360 view of the impact and experience of conflict within the organisation.
- Early Resolution Scheme in the place of a Disciplinary and Grievance process
This is as much about the language we use to address conflict as the processes in place. An Early Resolution Scheme does not dispense with the Disciplinary and Grievance Process but incorporates it. Crucially, it changes the psychological contract with the employee from one where the employee is aggrieved or disciplined to one where the employee’s focus is on early resolution. The language of grievance and disciplinary is very much that of blame and shame. It is disempowering and makes most parties feel, in some way, a victim to the other person or to the situation. Focussing on early resolution enables all the parties to thinking of how they can take control of and responsibility for the situation they find themselves in.
- Touchpoints for early resolution
Ensuring that appropriate individuals are equipped to address conflict early can quickly diffuse conflicts that otherwise later get out of control. This will include:
- Mentors who clarify what the expectations are of the organisation and the employee. A mentor can help the employee focus what they want out of the employment relationship and how they intend to achieve that. They can also be a touch point to work through situations where achieving these expectations starts to become a challenge.
- Personal Conflict Coaches support individuals to work out how they want to address conflict situations they find themselves in. They may be an appropriately equipped mentor or other individual. Critically, they enable individuals to engage in difficult conversations and negotiations strategically with a clearer head. As a result, these conversations become much more constructive and less likely to spiral out of control.
- Resolution Agents are managers who are equipped to manage conflict well. Resolution Agents have the tools to manage and negotiate the situation fairly using mediation skills. These skills are focussed on a non-judgmental and non-directive approach. The result is that they will empower their team whilst not getting sucked into the conflict. They will also have the capacity to step back into their management role at the right time and give clear direction and leadership.
- Mediators might be in house or external mediators. There will be various considerations that will determine the efficiency of either or both. Incorporating mediators as part of the resolution process, normalises their intervention. This means that when a mediator is brought in to a situation, it is not something scary that escalates the situation. Rather, it becomes a normal intervention similar to introducing a coach to help individuals achieve goals and targets.
- Pro-active learning and development
Many of us are natural mediators. However, it is crucially to consciously use those skills for them to be effective in a work environment. The best resolvers of conflict are those individuals who take themselves out of the picture. This requires a consciousness of what they are doing as well as structure and discipline.
In the first instance it is important to embed in employees the simple understanding that conflict is very normal. It is a situation that arises when I disagree with you. It may be an irritation over filling the office kitchen dishwasher. Crucially, it needs to be recognised and addressed early.
All the touch point roles mentioned above should be specifically trained in conflict to the degree that their role will need to deal with it. Emphasis will be on supporting themselves and others through conflict situations. This ranges from having structures and tools to deal with difficult conversations to more sophisticated conflict coaching and mediation skills.
A bad conflict resolution strategy is simply one that is not thought through. It is reactive. It can happen, for example where mediation is introduced but is not really part of the organisation’s culture. When this happens, sometimes individuals feel targeted. They may feel like they are at the centre a tick box exercise. Equally, they might feel like they are being punished.
Alternatively, internal mediators may be trained up and may not be used. In fact this is never a “bad” thing because it will increase awareness of conflict resolution within the organisation. It will also probably help to address ow level conflicts. However, it may not be the best use of resource. From the organisation’s perspective, decision makers may feel that they have spent a lot of money for nothing. This may mean that the benefits of early resolution mechanisms are not seen or trusted and opportunities to use them effectively are wasted.
Ugly conflict resolution within an organisation is one that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those who are and even some of those who are not involved in the core conflict. This can often happen when managers absolve responsibility for conflict resolution and call in HR to deal with what are effectively management issues.
What this does is formalise the processes too early. Conversation and opportunity for creative engagement with difficult issues is stifled and driven underground. This often results in long held resentments brewing within the organisation over what “they” did to an employee even years after management has changed. It can also result in lengthy tribunals, loss of opportunity and work days lost.
A good conflict resolution strategy does not have to be complicated or particularly expensive. The key is to think about conflict and where and how it arises. Once that has happened we can make conscious decisions about how to address it. The right Conflict Resolution Strategy will define whether conflict becomes a force for change and evolution or for destruction within the organisation. Key for any functional organisation, is to know that conflict will always happen and to make sure you know how you are going to deal with it when it does.
Founding Director, Lead Mediator and Trainer The Conflict Resolution Centre