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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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Workplace conflict – challenge or opportunity?


This article was written by Sue Hook of Sapience HR.

You know what it’s like, the atmosphere in the team is prickly and ‘those two have obviously had words again’. They clearly don’t get on or it’s a case of the notorious ‘clash of personalities’. But do you have to just continue to accept this poor working relationship and suffer the impact this is having on the business or is there something more you could be doing?

Conflict can occur where parties have diverse opinions or different values or conflicting priorities. Bell & Hart’s Eight Causes of Conflict provides more detailed information about possible causes. Whatever the cause, there is an individual and business cost. There could be a loss of trust, personal stress and a negative working atmosphere which affects the whole team, reduced productivity and increased absenteeism or staff turnover.

If conflict is not tackled, you can guarantee that problems will return to your ‘to do’ list within a few weeks or months. The problem is unlikely to go away on its own; let’s be honest, if the parties involved could solve their relationship problem, they would have done so by now. Problems can spiral out of control or escalate to claims of harassment or bullying.

HR staff are often involved in helping managers deal with conflict in their team, but what can you do to get the best resolution? Having a framework to work to can help to tackle all aspects of the problem, so here are my tips for dealing with conflict in the workplace:-

  • Informal approach: Although a bit of a cliché, a coffee and a chat with both parties individually can help them to start the process of resolving matters themselves. This helps them understand that their relationship problem has been noticed and is not only affecting each other, but the team and their productivity as well. Sometimes, this is enough of a kick start to help them work toward a resolution.
  • Agreement: To resolve any conflict situation, each person needs to agree to cooperate, with the aim of reaching a resolution. This takes a lot of courage. To help in getting agreement, ask both parties what they would like to improve or what outcome they would like. Clearly establish that both parties wish to resolve the matter, with the added bonus that this is an opportunity for personal and professional growth.
  • Identify triggers and reactions: What is it that is done or said which triggers a reaction between each party? Help the parties identify what they are doing or saying which escalates a situation into an argument or worse and find ways to avoid these triggers.
  • Identify the problem: In identifying the problem, focus on the behaviour, not the person. Personal insults or name calling are not productive and can leave resentment and bad feelings behind. Statements beginning with ‘You’, e.g. ‘You never get the report in on time’, can be inflammatory and are rarely helpful. Help each party to describe the situation, describe how this makes them feel and then to offer a possible solution or different way of they could deal with the situation.
  • Listen closely: Help each party to get to the root of the problem by listening closely. As a neutral third party, it is possible to hear clues and themes in what is being said, where this has not been fully articulated by the individual. Emotions can be raw and these need to be acknowledged. However, this does not mean that either party is right or wrong.
  • Drop the attitude: Help the parties identify how they can act in a mature manner and how they can exercise their personal choice, in the way they behave, in any given situation. It can be difficult to drop resentments or let go of an entrenched position or way of thinking, but by adjusting their attitude, this can significantly help towards resolving matters. Help each party save face and preserve their integrity with colleagues and peers by thinking about the psychology of what is going on between them.
  • Brainstorm solutions: Encourage both parties to brainstorm lots ideas of what can change. Don’t worry about the practicalities of each suggestion at this stage. The important thing here is to create choices by generating suggestions, ideas and possible solutions. This may be challenging, but often a discussion around ‘what I don’t want’, leads to proposals of ‘what I do want’.
  • Agree solutions: From the list of ideas and suggestions, hone a solution(s) which each party agrees to. Assess the alternatives by considering advantages, disadvantages, implications and consequences. Remind each party of their desired outcome and help them to identify which solution(s) is the best fit. By focussing attention on the matters which are the main priorities, agreements become more significant. At this point it is crucial to ensure both parties are in agreement of what the best solution(s) is.
  • Implement: For a solution to work, both parties need to take action and follow through on any agreements made – be clear about who will do what and by when. The solution is theirs, not yours, so let them get on with it! Each party can follow up on tasks assigned or agreed upon. However, don’t give up if the solution doesn’t work. Just get the parties to try something else.

Formal mediation is also an option and has a high success rate when undertaken by a trained mediator. Discussing the problem with an outside party can provide useful distance from the problem and a different perspective. Mediation is particularly useful when the parties have become deeply entrenched in their separate camps. The recent joint report by CIPD & ACAS, “Mediation: An Approach to Resolving Workplace Issues,” found that 80 percent of employers identify the main benefit of using mediation is an improvement in working relationships between employees.

Whilst tackling conflict may seem to take up a lot of time and effort to find a resolution, think how much time it would take out of your day if the problem escalated! Prevention is better than cure, so tackle workplace conflict as soon as it arises and turn this challenge into an opportunity.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence