Seven simple steps to prevent or manage (inevitable) workplace conflict in complex, global settings

In any work environment, one can expect conflict to arise.  Here are the key lessons we have learnt to help employers best address the realities of complex, global and pressurised workplaces.

1.      Ensure that every person knows their role in creating a great working environment

Clear values and a common understanding that each individual is accountable for creating the environment in which they work are essential building blocks of a harmonious workplace.  An employer should use training and all appropriate communication channels to ensure that individual employees know that they are important, that they have a critical role to play in creating their environment.

Individual employees need to reflect on how they behave in a number of workplace roles: (1) as a person doing something that may cause a problem, (2) as a person who feels uncomfortable about something that has been done and (3) as someone who is aware of something having been done.  They need to be thinking about an environment that does not exclude others and about how to handle conflict positively.

Conflicts arise because of the reaction of an individual to another’s action, however reasonable or unreasonable the action and the reaction may be.  Both actor and receiver therefore have roles to play in creating the conflict, have choices they can make and have greater understanding they can bring to bear to avoid the conflict or to stop it escalating into a problem that requires resolution.

2.      Promote conversation – talking is the key

At its simplest organisations need to promote conversations, to ensure that everyone sees the importance of (and feels comfortable) having a regular conversation with the person to whom they report.  Conversations about the working environment, about concerns they may have, about things that could make them, and the organisation, more effective.  When these conversations are not commonplace, the organisation is typically running operational and/or regulatory and other risks and is almost certainly not operating to its full potential.

3.      Promote inclusive leadership

The organisation’s management need to practice inclusive leadership: valuing, supporting and respecting each individual they lead.  They need to be reinforcing the organisation’s message that each individual has a critical role to play in creating the environment in their approach and in their day to day actions.  They need to be having regular conversations with each person who reports to them about the working environment, about concerns either of them may have, about things that could make the individual, and therefore the organisation, more effective.  Communication is the key to human relationships of every kind.  Communication is a two way thing that requires both manager and employee to be imparting and receiving information.

We have found that we can engender positive changes by working specifically on inclusive leadership, helping managers engender a culture of inclusion.  A central message is that – at its core – inclusive leadership is about seeing things from someone else’s perspective, or at least trying to imagine what it might look like to them and recognising the importance of how someone is treated and how they feel in determining their level of performance.

4.      Informal resolution is the ideal (and should be the norm)

Anyone involved in conflict in the workplace should be tasked primarily with exploring informal resolution: a confidential, non-judgmental exchange, which seeks to address the issue at the heart of the conflict, and to achieve agreement between the parties on a course of action. This is generally the most effective method for those in the conflict and for the employer.

The form that informal resolution can take will vary depending on the circumstances (a discussion with a supervisor, a mediation, a shuttle mediation between the parties). Flexibility and a genuine effort to reach a resolution are what matters most.  At its most basic level it is the two individuals concerned feeling able to talk to each other and knowing that it is safe for them to do so and that the other party will be listening and trying to understand them.

5.      Clear accountability for resolving the issue

If the conflict cannot be resolved informally or the conflict raises serious issues for the organisation, it helps if someone (normally a senior manager) has clear accountability in a given area of the organisation for resolving workplace disputes.  This person (who may be called a Resolution Officer) should always act in a manner that protects the organisation’s reputation.  They must be fully trained and the role will be an important part of their day to day job. In this way an organisation can ensure that, wherever possible, the process is kept focused on achieving the outcome of resolving the conflict, whether through formal or informal channels.

6.      A forward looking resolution focus

Many (adversarially based) internal processes seek primarily to establish the facts of a situation and to apportion blame for what has happened.  Such processes virtually never bring about resolution.  What is critical is that a process allows the person (people) tasked with resolution to have a forward looking resolution focus, to ask initially ‘what would your ideal resolution look like?’ and/or to assume that the two parties will be working together going forward and so what needs to happen for that to be possible.  This is far more likely to bring about an outcome that benefits the parties and the organisation.

The process should always keep key objectives in mind: protecting the reputation of the organisation and effecting resolution in a manner that will cause the least disruption to the day to day operation of the organisation.   There is no reason why mediation and the principles of mediation should not be used in conjunction with or following a disciplinary process.

7.      Understand that an investigation won’t provide a simple answer

An investigation is normally part of an adversarial process in that it seeks to establish facts. Through long experience of conducting investigations on behalf of employers we have learnt that, with care, investigations can form part of a resolution focus.  The person being interviewed is being listened to and they may come to trust the person interviewing them.  These can be important factors in attempting to bring about a resolution.  However, frequently the investigator is required to judge who they believe; who is ‘telling the truth’.

A process that focuses on what the investigation has actually found may be far more effective.  The conclusion is probably not that person A is a sex pest, a racist or whatever; what has been concluded is probably that on one, two or however many occasions, person A is believed to have done something that upset or offended person B and on that basis person A has been disciplined.

An adversarial process is black and white – a person raises allegations which are then denied by the alleged wrongdoer.  The decision maker then has to decide whether to uphold the allegations or not.  In reality life is lived in the grey, and rarely in the black and white.  Allowing the investigator or a decision maker to explore what actually happened as opposed to whether the allegation as formulated is upheld or not is far more likely to lead to a resolution with which all can feel comfortable (or equally uncomfortable as the case may be).

It is important to think very carefully about how to convey the result of an investigation; workplace splits or schisms often develop.  People in a workplace will have strong views about the parties already, they will know who they prefer and who they are going to side with.  Factors such as this need to be part of the decision making process.