Transforming workplace conflict

Author: Harrison HR | Blog

Before attempting to resolve workplace complaints and disagreements that have spiraled out of control, managers need to work out if they are dealing with a dispute or a conflict.
Following is some guidance on managing workplace conflict.
A ‘dispute’ (or disagreement) is a contest over a specific set of facts. Disputes are about facts.
An investigation helps uncover the facts, and having done so the people involved may look to the manager for some assistance to find an acceptable outcome, or to help them agree to disagree.
A dispute should be distinguished from ‘conflict’ — the affected people in conflict generally experience negative feelings about each other.
If those involved are in conflict, their dispute about facts is not their major problem. The underlying conflict is their major problem. A process or an investigation for cleaning up the dispute will not directly affect the problem of conflict. In many cases, an investigation into a problem about conflict exacerbates the conflict. It simply creates more fuel for the existing conflict fire.
As soon as people are in conflict, the facts of some particular dispute are not the cause of ill-feeling and poor communication between those involved. Instead, each dispute simply adds to the ongoing conflict.

Treat a conflict like a dispute and everyone loses

Conflict — a general state of negative feelings between people — cannot be dealt with by using the typical grievance system. Try investigating the way people feel.
The results of an investigation into a conflict likely unveils three possible outcomes, none of them attractive, and all guaranteed to worsen the relationships between those involved.
As a result of conducting the investigation, gathering evidence, hearing arguments you can either:

  • declare one argument to be the winner, and discipline the person(s) about whom the complaint was raised; or
  • declare no argument to be the winner, and hope that settles it; or
  • declare the complaint as vexatious, and discipline the person(s) who made the complaint.

Another approach

Conducting investigations, gathering evidence and hearing arguments is essentially an approach that maximises the differences and discrepancies between the disputants.
It is not an effective approach to cases where the conflict is more significant than the facts of any dispute.
Ask these questions to deal with a workplace conflict:

  1. What’s happened?
  2. How have people been affected?
  3. What can we do to repair any hurt or harm?

These questions are based on a restorative model of justice that works from the approach that when things go wrong, it’s an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and minimise the possibility of the behaviour recurring.
This approach is built on the evidence-based principles of restorative justice and allows a team to:

  • talk about what has been happening from their perspective
  • acknowledge the barriers and distractions to working well together
  • understand how these barriers and distractions affect people and prevent cooperation
  • determine what needs to be done to make working in the team better
  • sign up to a plan that delivers on this
  • take the responsibility for delivering on the plan.

Intervention process

When people are in conflict, the effective process is to:

  • gather information from the participants
  • bring those involved together to hear what has happened, and to learn how they have been affected
  • have the group decide how to make things better
  • record their decisions as an action plan
  • monitor the plan until it is completed.
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