Change of mind set necessary for tackling workplace conflict

Posted by Rebecca Ireland on
Training managers in dispute resolution techniques could avoid costly tribunals

Many HR professionals must be wondering why they are still dealing with so many time-consuming and costly grievance and disciplinary processes.

Nipping a workplace problem in the bud must be preferable to a lengthy dispute and tribunal procedure. The challenge is to shift organisations away from formal dispute resolution processes and to focus more on tackling workplace conflict head on at an early stage. It is clear that in order to achieve this, managers must be properly equipped.

A recent CIPD report ‘Conflict management: a shift in direction?’ found that 47 per cent of those surveyed had trained line managers in handling “difficult conversations” or managing conflict over the last 12 months. This was also the method of dealing with workplace issues which showed the greatest increase (56 per cent) in frequency of use over this period. Use of disciplinary action or the grievance procedure increased by 29 per cent and 28 per cent respectively.

Line managers, rather than HR professionals are in the best position to observe potential conflict situations within their teams but may lack the confidence and competence to intervene. They may either avoid the issue, letting it spiral out of control, or their early interventions may backfire because of their lack of skills. They may be well-versed in following the organisation’s formal procedures, but these are by their very nature combative, creating a blame culture and not addressing underlying relationship issues. Managing conflict through constructive workplace discussions is a collaborative process, and can result in a winning outcome for everyone.

Many issues escalate rapidly because employees are too quick to assert their rights when often it is simply a case of two people not getting on because of ineffective communication. In those circumstances, the best way to get to the underlying reason for the conflict is to talk it out. This is what qualified mediators do, in a more structured way, but line managers with the right skills can tackle lower levels of conflict just as successfully.

The key skills needed are active listening, effective questioning and impartiality. Active listening encourages employees to open up and be comfortable describing how they feel about a situation. A manager listening actively is taking account not only of the words used, but also how they are said and any non-verbal communication. Using a range of listening techniques also shows employees their manager is giving them his or her full attention and understanding what they say.

The manager will also need to use a range of questioning techniques, the most valuable of which is the use of open questions. These encourage the employee to respond with detail rather than a simple “yes” or “no”. Closed questions (yes/no) can be helpful to clarify points.

Perhaps most difficult for managers is the need to remain impartial and not express opinion. A manager's normal role is to give advice, make decisions and pass judgment so it is challenging to drop this. However, it is necessary to enable participants to feel they are in control of the outcome of the discussion rather than having the manager decide for them. Applying these skills within a structured framework will enable managers to address conflict early and avoid the damage of escalation.

A shift towards more informal methods of conflict management is likely to require a change of mind set. With so much employment legislation designed to protect employees, it can mean that managers are far too worried about potential litigation to deal with problems informally. Training them will give them the courage to engage with their team, encouraging open and honest dialogue as a normal part of the working day. The overall effect should be increased employee engagement and a happier workforce, which should filter down to the bottom line.

This article was first published on

This article is co-authored by Rebecca Ireland and Marc Reid, Associate Consultant.

About the Author

Rebecca is a highly experienced employment lawyer, having specialised in the area over 21 years ago, and is also a qualified mediator.

Rebecca Ireland
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0118 955 3012

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