Posted by Adam Blanch on 15 November 2013
According to a report commissioned by Safe Work Australia, the cost of psychosocial workplace stress, to which workplace conflict is a major contributor, is over $8 billion annually. While conflict in the workplace is unavoidable, it can be minimised. In any group made of individuals with different needs and goals there will be disputes, and this is particularly true when those people have differing levels of power and privilege. There are several crucial steps to effectively dealing with conflict and difficult situations that arise as a result:
1. Prevention is better than cure
Most conflicts start because workplaces haven’t created the necessary safeguards, workplace culture and processes to ensure that all staff are being treated fairly and respectfully. That’s not to say there are no problem individuals, but these individuals often act as a ‘miner’s canary’, letting us know there is a deeper, more systemic problem. Training managers in professional communication and behaviour, and training staff in how to communicate constructively about their issues, will prevent most conflict from occurring.
2. Early intervention
Conflict rarely arises suddenly. It emerges over time and can be discovered by watching for absenteeism, low productivity, staff disengagement, low morale and poor retention. These are clear indicators that there is a need to improve ‘bottom up’ feedback processes and pay attention to the culture of the workplace.
Once conflict has become ‘personal’, with one or both parties attacking the other’s character, motivations or value, it is a very difficult situation to recover from. We do not easily forget or forgive personal attacks. It is essential that disputes be framed in non-personal terms if at all possible, though often this is unachievable as it has been caused by personal idiosyncrasies. At the very least it needs to be about an individual’s behaviours and not about their character if there is to be any hope of a successful outcome.
4. Independent conflict resolution
In almost every conflict there will be errors on both sides. Nothing will stall a process of conflict resolution faster than one party attempting to make themselves invulnerable to minimise their risk while maximising the other person’s by trying to force them into compliance. This inevitably means the other party has to call in power of their own by taking legal action or involving unions. The sooner independent mediation is involved the better the chance of a successful resolution. A mediator will help the parties discharge the emotional energy, to listen to the other party’s point of view and to agree on a mutually desired outcome. Empathy and perspective are far better tools for conflict resolution than power can ever be.
If mediation has failed then there is no choice but to seek adjudication, preferably from an independent body that both parties agree has the right to make a binding decision. Most governments provide dispute resolution and adjudication services such as the Australian Fair Work Commission.
Workplace conflict is both inevitable and mostly avoidable – if you take the time to set up the correct processes and culture that can nip it in the bud early. You can find the latest information on Australian industrial relations laws and best practices and an excellent guide on managing workplace conflict.