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Time to wake up to conflict at work

Article by Louisa Weinstein

In a one year period, the cost of conflict to UK organisations was £28.5 billion – the equivalent of more than £1,000 for each employee. Close to 10 million people experienced conflict at work. Of these, over half suffer stress, anxiety or depression as a result; just under 900,000 took time off work; nearly half a million resigned, and more than 300,000 employees were dismissed.[1]

Workplace conflict and its cost is not just inevitable, it is vital.  The ability and capacity to disagree enables creativity and innovation in a way that is not possible if everyone agrees. However, the modern workplace and its people need capacity both in terms of infrastructure and practice to support and nurture difference, disagreement and discord and turn it them into an advantage.

An expectation for everyone to get along and agree all the time is also unrealistic and creates an unhelpful dynamic because lack of conflict does not equal a lack of ability to work together, quite the opposite.  Through conflict we are presented with an opportunity to take a fresh look at situations and deliver different outcomes that we may have been too timid to explore before or that just didn’t become clear until the cold light of day.  When we accept and embrace this inevitability, we start to build capacity to negotiate and communicate through difference, increase resilience and develop creative solutions.

So, how does do we seize the opportunity…

  1. Critically review the grievance and disciplinary process

At first sight, this looks radical.  But, when we scratch beneath the surface it doesn’t take much to turn current processes around and to create an infrastructure with conflict resolution, resilience, dynamic communication and kindness at its very core.

The systems we have in place to address conflict provide process and a certain comfort and support.  They are also, in some respects, counter-intuitive to functional relationships and good mental health.

The grievance and disciplinary process, by its very name, demands that we are either the victim of some bad behaviour or are, in some way, told off.  What this creates is an organisational requirement to blame and shame – for someone to be right and someone to be wrong. This position based posturing destroys the capacity and motivation to collaborate and is more often than not a hotbed for the building of resentments that infiltrate the core of organisations and last for years.

What is needed therefore, is a change in the psychological contract between the employee and the employer.  One which moves away from the need to be aggrieved or disciplined to one where both parties are focussed on resolution.  Introducing an Early Resolution Scheme, in place of a Grievance and Disciplinary Process, can create that shift with only small adjustments to procedure.

When organisations do adopt these changes they open up the options available to resolve and work through challenges.  This had a mediated approach at its core but can include conflict coaching and similar interventions alongside formal mediation that generally make the escalation of the conflict unnecessary. The grievance and disciplinary levers may still exist but occupy a more relevant place as one or two of the menu of responses that may be helpful in a conflict situation.

  1. Acknowledge the changing conversation

We know that the way we work and interact with our leaders, managers and co-workers has changed immeasurably.  Management structures, particularly in more agile organisations are flatter, there is more to negotiate in day-to-day relationships – working from home / work being just one of many such negotiations.  What is more those negotiations can be as much about the practical as the personal. The better grasp individuals have on both aspects, the more successful the conversation generally goes.

Increased awareness about mental health also demands that we build our capacity for emotional intelligence. This necessitates an even greater need to change the conversations we are having and how we are having them.  This is by no means plain sailing and in fact our increased awareness and capacity for sensitivity can make managing performance and setting boundaries even more tricky as we progress through what can often be a steep learning curve of self development and awareness.

The point of acknowledgement is not easy.  It is like ripping off a band aid – it can look unsightly and feel unnerving.  What is also inevitable is that we will make mistakes, get things wrong and as a result be vulnerable something that can feel or be unconscionable to the individual from the perspective of self preservation.  But it is necessary to see the situation in its fullness and give it some air.  When we do this, the next steps become significantly easier.

When we sleepwalk through disciplinary, grievance and other processes the result can be one in which everyone is disempowered.  As issues escalate, those involved start to look to HR as an arbiter or parent figure who is going to make a decision about the issue with an expectation that the problem will go away.  As HR get involved, so the need to entrench in positions increases.  But, with the focus on what happened, who was right, who was wrong and what are the consequences or punishments the problem often does not go away but is rather exacerbated.  What is more the process enables managers to avoiding engaging in the very conversations that are critical to resolve the issues.

It is here that the golden opportunity to transform the workplace sits.  The cornerstone of this is the change in the conversation moving towards a forward thinking line of communication which focusses on “What do we want to achieve?”, “How might that happen in practice?”, “What are the challenges or opportunities?”, ”What do we do if we do/don’t get what we want?” and even “what might cause us to change our mind?”.  In other words, in the midst of conflict and entrenchment to shift the focus towards what might be possible now instead of what went wrong then.

How we have these conversations will be critical to their success.  This is not just about listening but knowing what we are listening out for in order to negotiate a path through to a solution.  It builds muscles of collaboration, communication and negotiation that are going to be so critical to facing future.  It also builds an organisation or team with individuals that are able to recognise each others perspectives.

When this happens, the function of HR moves from arbiter to coach or conflict coach.  The manager remains in charge and responsible, the conversations can be brave and honest, empowered communication can flow and both manager and team member can develop, grow and learn.

Conflict is one of the most powerful catalysts for change.  It provides energy, focus and drive.  But the frame within which we experience it and deal with it needs to change.  Identification of conflict needs to no longer be coupled with identification of blame.  Yes boundaries need to be set and responsibility needs to be taken.  This requires a cultural and structural change.  A change in the way we have the conversation but also to our processes and procedures in which a mediated approach is at the core.  When we achieve this, we also achieve an empowered workforce ready to take responsibility for themselves and motivated to succeed.

[1] Estimating the costs of workplace conflict May 2021 ACAS Saundry and Urwin

    Louisa Weinstein is as highly sought after Conflict Mediation Specialist and the founder of The Conflict Resolution Centre, based in London, England. She has been supporting individuals and organizations to achieve effective negotiations and to build cohesive teams for the last 20 years. Louisa is author of 7 Principles of Conflict Resolution, is the featured Conflict Resolution Expert on the BBC’s ‘Across the Red Line,’

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