Wednesday, 14 October 2015

"Touch my Justin Bieber poster again and I'll sue!"

Workplace conflict can often start in a fairly innocuous manner but the consequences can be serious as highlighted by 40% of respondents to a recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development, "Tracing Workplace Conflict".  

An employee in one organization was dismissed after Facebook "banter" got out of hand and he "liked" a comment about an unpopular manager being beaten over the head with a chair.

Barbed comments between two chefs about vegetable preparation ended in a fist fight and a hospital visit for the two protagonists.

Another business came to standstill for three days over a dispute over stolen milk from the refrigerator. The company ended up buying six new refrigerators, one for each department. 

These examples illustrate the importance of dealing proactively with conflict and not allowing the situation to fester. The impact on productivity, motivation, morale and the culture of the organization can't be underestimated. 

A certain amount of conflict in an organization is inevitable, and the most common ..... a clash of personality or working style. You are after all putting a group of people together who may have conflicting personal objectives and are not necessarily selected for their teamworking skills. Just ask the manager of a sales team I recently worked with, the concept of collaboration was not one that came readily to this team.

Often communication or a lack of it is the flashpoint for conflict - language and the body language that accompanies it is often at the root of many misunderstandings. This is exacerbated with the increasing absence of face to face contact in the workplace, you can't judge from the other person's reaction whether you're on the right track or not from a voice message, text or e-mail.

Line managers nervousness in dealing with conflict is also a contributory factor to escalating problems. From my experience in 25 years of working with a range of organizations, managers are often promoted for their technical expertise and not necessarily their people skills. They are placed in positions of authority, without the necessary skills or confidence to deal effectively with these situations and as a result they don't.

So how do we deal effectively with conflict in the workplace?

Well timing is everything. Taking a proactive approach to adress issues early on will pay dividends but requires line managers to be skilled and confident to take action. We may find that mediation and conflict resolution become a core skill for all managers as they take up post, so that they can deal with matters informally and effectively.

This is often preferable to formalizing the process too early by bringing in the HR "big guns", which can lead to an increase in grievances where every problem leads to a formal complaint and investigation. Did I mention the time and financial cost the formal process can take?

A third option is to utlize a mediation service, either internal or external, that can lead to a positive outcome. However, this approach needs to take place without prejudice and from a position of balanced power i.e. mediation won't be effective if the approach is " ... if this doesn't work I resort to legal action".

Here's my six simple steps to dealing proactively and effectively with conflict in the workplace:

  1. Discuss the situation in a respectful manner
  2. Be specific as to the problem
  3. Discuss how the conflict impacts on you, the team or the project
  4. Ask for the other parties perspective on what's causing the conflict
  5. Ask for a proposed solution
  6. Agree on the action to be taken

Click here for further information on how I can help managers become proficient at tackling those difficult situations at work.

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