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Coronavirus special with Donna Gibb: Managing employee conflict

BY Donna Gibb
Employment Law & HR

Conflict can have a significantly negative impact on organisations and its potential to occur in the workplace between employees is more likely to be heightened in times like these.  Negative conflict at work can reduce performance and productivity, it can be stressful and time-consuming for all concerned and takes focus away from delivering on objectives and organisational priorities.

The quality of the working environment has a significant impact on our well-being. A supportive culture with positive relationships can greatly enhance our work experience; conflict can seriously undermine it. Not all conflict is necessarily negative, but even a minor disagreement between people can fester and escalate if not addressed at the earliest opportunity. In these current times, with stress levels heightened, disagreements, differences and inequalities can lead to the emergence of conflict.  

The pandemic continues to have an unequal impact across the workforce as different groups of employees have been affected in diverse ways according to their job role and individual circumstances.  Some have been furloughed, frustrated and stressed with time on their hands at home, whilst others have been extremely busy and frustrated by being unable to take time off.  The unbalanced position means there could be negative feelings creeping into the working environment as more employees return to the workplace.  People managers will require to be sensitive to any underlying tensions and confident about intervening early to avoid a potential conflict escalating.

How would you define conflict?

Conflict involves an emotional reaction to a situation or interaction, which signals a disagreement of some kind. The emotions felt might be fear, sadness, bitterness, anger or hopelessness, or some mix of these.  If we experience these feelings in regard to another person or situation, we feel that we are in conflict. 

Conflict also consists of the actions that we take to express our feelings, articulate our perceptions and get our needs met in a way that has the potential for interfering with someone else’s ability to get his or her needs met.  This conflict behaviour may involve a direct attempt to make something happen at someone else’s expense, it may be an exercise of power.

So how do these sources of conflict impact on people at work?

We are largely imperfect communicators and sometimes this can generate conflict.  Conflict frequently escalates because people act on the assumption that they have communicated accurately when they have not. When they learn that others are acting on the basis of different information and assumptions, they often attribute this to bad faith or deviousness and not to our communication problem.

Many factors may contribute to communication problems.  Culture, gender, age, environment significantly affect an individual’s ability to communicate effectively.  People often rely on inaccurate or incomplete perceptions, tend to form stereotypes, and carry into their communications conclusions drawn from former interactions or experiences.  The greater the duress a person is under, the harder it is for him or her to communicate. Sometimes communication takes more energy and focus than someone is able or willing to give at a critical point and it is easy to become discouraged or hopeless about communicating effectively in serious conflicts. 

Emotions are the energy that fuel the conflict.  If people could always stay perfectly rational and focused on how to best meet their needs and accommodate those of others, and if they could calmly work to establish good communication, then many conflicts would either never arise or would quickly decrease. At times emotions seem to be in control of behaviour, a source of power for disputants.  Emotions are generated both by particular interactions or circumstances and by previous experiences.  They fuel conflict but they are also a key to de-escalating it.

How evident is conflict within the modern workplace?

CIPD research on Managing Conflict in the Modern Workplace shows that conflict is part of organisational life, and a common occurrence at work according to 26% of employees and 20% of employers.  The CIPD survey of employees found that just over a third had experienced some form of interpersonal conflict, over the past year.

Line managers are typically at the forefront of dealing with conflict, as well as sometimes playing a leading role in it, according to the research.  Among those employees who had experienced bullying or harassment over the past three years, 40% were likely to blame their manager or supervisor for the inappropriate behaviour.

On being asked how effective their manager was in dealing with the conflict they experienced, a third who had experienced conflict said their manager had made the situation worse.

So line managers are key to managing conflict, how crucial will this be in the current environment?

For people managers, returning from lockdown could be much harder than lockdown, safeguarding health and wellbeing, managers will have to think about what is needed for their teams and specific needs of their people.  Engaging with staff to ensure clear messaging is key, line manager’s clear communications with their teams will be vital.  Both for those returning to the workplace and those remaining working from home if the potential for conflict is to be reduced.

Keeping everyone informed whether good or bad news will help employees to make their own decisions and give a degree of security. Knowing they are valued and supported and that their employer prioritises their health and safety will be key to well being and contribute to a culture which minimises conflict.

Managers should be encouraged to have one to ones with key focus on health, safety and wellbeing, to try to mitigate any negative conflict.  In the current environment managers need to have a sensitive and open discussion with staff, discuss adjustments, ongoing support etc.

Employers will be reliant in strong people managers taking on a key role in managing conflict as we return to work.

Over the past decade or more, the trend has been to devolve responsibility for people management activities to line managers. Managers tend to be most confident about the technical aspects of their role, such as meeting deadlines and managing projects compared with the ‘people’ aspects, such as managing conflict and holding ‘difficult’ conversations.

Relationships at work can be complex, and a manager could be faced with a few difficult situations to tackle that are multi-faceted in these current times.  Advice from HR professionals needs to be on hand to offer managers their expertise and advice where needed.

How effective is workplace mediation?

Mediation is a process for handling disputes that assists the people involved to reach an agreement, working with an impartial independent mediator.  The parties who are in dispute, rather than the mediator, decide the terms of any settlement. 

Mediation can bring benefits such as the relative speed of resolution on comparison with other dispute resolution processes; the opportunity to more deeply understand the issues both from their perspective and the other party; the satisfaction which can come to disputants in controlling the outcome and finding a resolve; the opportunity to recover a relationship and/or avoid further damage; the confidential and impartial nature of the process; and the opportunity to explore and test the solution designed and agreed by them. 

In these times of lockdown, mediation can also be undertaken on line and in fact transfers well to Zoom or Teams, giving people the opportunity to participate from an environment they feel comfortable within.

At what stage in a conflict should mediation be considered?

Conflicts tend to follow certain stages and although each conflict will be different; there are certain distinctions you will notice.  It is useful to understand the stages involved and even if the particular conflict you are examining differs from the stages outlined, you will at least be able to identify what is emerging.

Latent conflict – It can be argued that there is always some conflict bubbling under the surface, particularly in the work environment. This is conflict waiting to happen. It may be that the conflict never happens or that by spotting latent conflict early a good practitioner can manage the situation and avoid it altogether.

Triggering incident - After a conflict has remained latent for some time, if the underlying grievances or frustrations are strong enough, a "triggering event" marks the emergence or the "eruption" phase of the conflict. This event or episode may be the first appearance of the conflict, or it may be a confrontation that erupts in the context of a protracted, but dormant, or low-level conflict.

Conflict – At this stage the issues begin to be aired. Parties start to make assumptions based on their positions and might label others. There will also be an element of blame being placed; people start to invest emotions and resources into remaining in the entrenched position and typically build alliances to strengthen their position.

New Equilibrium - Even after a settlement is reached, this is by no means the end of the conflict. The settlement has to be implemented. If it is just a conflict between two people, this may not be too hard: those two people do what they agree to do, and past problems may be solved. However, when there are more involved it can be difficult to maintain. Those people that resolved the conflict may need to manage carefully the egos and emotional issues of all parties.

Who should be involved in a mediation?

It can be used for conflict involving colleagues of a similar job or grade, or between those with different jobs and levels of seniority. It can also be used where there’s a disagreement between a people manager and a member of staff, or groups of staff.

What about how individuals react to conflict, this must have an impact on the success of mediation?

Individuals have different conflict styles.  We use the Kraybill inventory to help individuals identify their style in dealing with conflict.  This inventory sets out different styles from cooperating, directing, compromising, avoiding and harmonising. Helps individuals understand how they work with others and their own pattern of behaviours and those of others in a dispute.

Why should organisations manage conflict?

Conflict in the workplace can be unavoidable and is natural.  Some conflict can be positive, such as a healthy amount of competition to reach goals or when a problem-solving approach is used to discuss differing opinions on a work project to reach a creative solution. A work group may have a conflict in deciding what plan to pursue, or how to allocate responsibilities, for example. These conflicts can have a successful outcome if managed correctly.

Need some advice on managing flexible working requests?  Donna's interview on the topic for Law At Work Radio is available here.  In addition, Employment Law At Work and HR At Work are here to support employers 24/7/365.

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