Conflict resolution doesn’t have to be so difficult

Resolving workplace differences is a fine art – but mediation is a good starting point

Conflict is inevitable in life, so it’s completely normal for frictions and disputes to occur in the workplace – but that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. We often see confrontation and disagreement as negative, damaging and to be avoided at all costs. We think that talking about a problem will be uncomfortable, or even make things worse, so we walk away and ignore it.

But we couldn’t be more wrong, say conflict resolution experts. “Conflict is healthy and constructive,” says organisational psychologist Amir Kfir. He knows a bit about the topic; not only has he helped companies around the world transform themselves, he has also facilitated peace forums between different parties in trans-national conflicts. “It is through diversity and difference that we grow – if two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary,” says Kfir. “If people say ‘there is no conflict here’ they are either blind or lying. What’s important is how we manage conflict.”

Workplace mediation specialist, and president of Fowler Mediation, Dr Clare Fowler, agrees. “Conflict in itself is not a bad thing – it is an inevitable opportunity,” she says. It will occur in every workplace setting, but it is our response to it that determines if it becomes a positive or a negative experience.

In the UAE, for example, the melting pot of different cultures and nationalities is a common cause of conflict in the workplace. According to a 2014 academic paper and case study, by Badreya Al-Jenaibi, United Arab Emirates University, on managing conflict in the workplace, while diversity can lead to many positives, tension “can result in the creation of invisible barriers, a lack of communication or coordination and a lack of recognition of positive employee behavior’”.

It is the duty of the senior leaders and managers of organisations in the UAE to understand the challenges that come with workforce diversity in order to avoid conflict, while organisational structure and policies can be adjusted to help avoid its negative effects, states the paper.

In certain industries, such as advertising and the media, the correct calibration of conflict can be crucial to ensuring creativity isn’t constrained. In others, conflict is glossed over or handled punitively, so its root causes are never examined. HR is the vital social glue that ensures conflict is handled healthily. But few, HR included, can say they are on top of the issue.

Most organisations manage conflict through formal procedures – disciplinaries, grievances, employment tribunals and the like – which are, of course, prime HR responsibilities. There are two problems with this approach. First, such procedures typically kick in when the conflict has escalated, and the longer it goes on the more difficult it is to resolve. Second, HR professionals and others are often guilty of ‘hiding behind’ the procedures and failing to address the low-level conflict that rumbles on all the time.

Fowler says research has shown there are five main factors which can make the difference to the success with which workplace conflict is handled. They are: training employees, early on, in how to respond to conflict; engaging with employees so they feel comfortable discussing conflict with each other and management; addressing conflict immediately, to prevent it from escalating; offering a choice of different conflict resolution strategies for employees; and providing help in many different platforms – including training HR to resolve conflict.

Measures can also be put in place to defuse simmering tension before it becomes conflict. The key to this is listening: “Listen to both sides and without an agenda. Then bring both parties in and ask them to share with each other what they shared with HR,” says Fowler. “Bring in a facilitator or train HR to facilitate difficult meetings to make sure that everyone is able to share.”

Jonny Gifford, senior adviser for organisational behaviour at the CIPD, says we need to see a similar shift in attitude towards conflict resolution as we did to coaching a decade ago. “Mediation-type skills need to be a core part of what it takes to be a good line manager, just as coaching skills now are,” he says.

“It’s concerning that HR often sees conflict management as a non-strategic issue. Our research shows that it is the number one leadership challenge and one of the areas where HR is seen to add the most specialist value. This should be a wake-up call for HR – employee relations should not be treated as the ‘poor relation’. Conflict resolution expertise is hugely valuable to the organisation, which is looking to HR for support.”

Just how valuable conflict resolution skills are is evident from US research that suggests employees spend an average of 2.7 hours a week in conflict at work – which equates to around 7 per cent of payroll and billions of dollars in ‘lost’ time.

“HR has to realise that conflict management is a strategic issue that needs tackling, and they then need to get the business to recognise it as normal and deal with it in a healthy way,” says Gifford. However, he recognises that for most organisations this represents a cultural challenge: “You can’t achieve win-win solutions by just bolting on a mediation service.”

There also needs be a realisation that no one person is the same. “Different things bother certain people, and are fine for others. Certain strategies will work for some, but not for all. It is important for HR to listen and value each complaint, and have multiple options available,” says Fowler.

While conflict at work may not be an easy issue to tackle, arguably the first step is to stop seeing it as a problem.