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Jane Gunn

Gunn Consultancy

Professional mediator and coach

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The de-escalation game: Empowering employees to resolve conflict

Workplace conflict can and does happen. By empowering their employees to resolve their own conflicts, organisations can promote a culture where issues are dealt with without need for escalation. Here’s how.
brown ram: conflict resolution

When overt conflict occurs at work we often avoid dealing with the critical and controversial issues at play and communication breaks down. 

On more subtle occasions, the issue lies more with what conversations we are not having and why. 

When parallel conversations with others then occur we try to build alliances, cliques form, exclusions occur and we may meet off-site for further discussions. 

Evidence to support complaints or grievances is gathered, assumptions, inferences and judgements are made and shared, and gossip, backchat and even bullying can be evident. 

This situation could push the organisation and/or individuals over the edge. 

Having a positive, visible set of values … is a must-have

Empowering employees

The potential financial, personal, health and business costs are high and the matter will have escalated into something quite serious. 

But imagine a scenario when there isn’t a need for intervention from the C-suite or senior personnel.

Or one where formal action isn’t required because the issue has been nipped in the bud by the very people involved long before it reaches the point of pushing the red button.

There are many circumstances when a third party needs to be involved, depending on the severity of the conflict or incident. But organisations also need to empower their employees to resolve their own conflicts. 

By encouraging them not to escalate them to a higher authority before trying to sort the issues out directly with the person involved, in many situations difficulties can be resolved earlier on. 

Conflict management framework

However, this is not a green light to allow an employee to push the problems under the carpet and not take action, which invariably can lead to a systemic toxic culture. 

Nor is it always possible for every individual to face an aggressor. But if employees have the tools, framework and backing to look at the issue with 360° vision they may well be able to deal with it themselves long before the escalation stage. However, employees need some level of skills training to do that. 

They also need a clear manifesto and pledge that sets out the beliefs of the organisation to self manage conflict resolution at the earliest possible stage. 

Having a positive, visible set of values that are adhered to throughout the business is a must-have for any organisation. 

Workers additionally benefit from a conflict management framework, whereby employees are encouraged to self-manage issues or differences by initiating dialogue much earlier with the person with whom they have a problem.  

Sometimes they may need a third party (internal or external) to sit in, but at this stage they can still avoid the need for formal processes to be initiated, such as a grievance or formal complaint, which can be very hard for both parties to come back from. Sticking to a tight timeline for each stage is important. 

Leaders need to understand that change can be hard

Prioritising people

Equally, organisations need strong, constructive, responsive, connecting and humanising leadership and protocols. 

Leaders need to understand that change can be hard, it can push us out of our comfort zone and might bring up certain things for certain people. 

A clear vision of the future and prioritising their people is key. It is also vital for the workplace culture to celebrate differences, encourage respectful honest debate, be open to hearing and responding to others even when we fundamentally disagree, and for training to be highly valued. 

We want employees to know that it is up to them to behave with decency and respect, and that no one can take the journey for us. We want them to dig deep when things feel stuck and not give up when there are obstacles and setbacks in play.

Nine ways to self-manage conflict situations

Help your employees to manage conflict resolution themselves, by educating them on these nine steps:

1. Early action

Recognise when tension is beginning to happen in the relationship and take action. Try to de-escalate at the earliest point. 

2. No right or wrong

There are often different interpretations and perspectives of the same event that need to be acknowledged. Aim for shared understanding and acknowledging each other’s needs and vested interests and find common ground.

3. Get to the root

Listen deeply and think laterally to uncover the root of the problem and be open to options for resolution. 

4. Important questions

  • What’s happening right now and what is it we perceive as being negative about the situation?
  • What is the real issue we are talking about?
  • Are other things happening for us that may be having an impact?
  • What expectations are not being met and what has each of us been experiencing?
  • Have judgements, assumptions and inferences been made?  Has communication been adequate?
  • Do we need further evidence and to involve others? 
  • What do both parties need to settle this? 
  • And then what have you learned and what wisdom has been gained?

5. Resolution is key

Focus on creative problem solving to explore multiple ideas and resolutions without judgement or coercion and find things in common.

Listen deeply and think laterally

6. Moving on

Know how to let things truly go once they have been talked about or dealt with.

This can take time, but the process should enable you to draw a line in the sand.  If a place of settlement has been reached then don’t revisit it. 

And then…

7. A respectful culture

A culture in which transparency, honesty, and mistakes are ok. Don’t wait for the leaders to create this or for someone else to fix it. We can all lead and be empowered.  

8. Conflict training

Many of us won’t have formal conflict training, so it is not our fault that we aren’t readily equipped to manage conflict and rely solely on our own previous experiences.  

If they have been negative then we are likely to have a damaged framework for conflict resolution. Workplace conflict training is essential. 

9. A conflict framework

Demand the organisation has a framework to deal with conflict with set time limits for each stage. 

Following all of these steps, we can pledge to do things differently next time.

If you enjoyed this article, read: Is your workplace culture one of blame?

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Jane Gunn

Professional mediator and coach

Read more from Jane Gunn