With a CIPD survey reporting that conflict in the workplace is on the rise, it’s increasingly important that managers are equipped to arrest conflict before it becomes a problem. Unfortunately, there is evidence that many line managers don’t have the skills required to diffuse conflict in a timely fashion.
The CIPD’s Managing conflict at work: Guidance for line managers (2008) says that it is “essential that line managers have the skills, knowledge and confidence to identify and manage workplace disagreements… at an early stage”. This guidance document sets out an excellent competency framework to assist managers to proactively manage conflict, which includes: monitoring team relationships; being sensitive to bickering; avoiding tacit approval; behaving as a role model; and building trust and mutual respect. It counsels the benefit of quickly “having a quiet word with team members involved” and, in some conflict situations, acting as an “objective broker” of solutions while being “careful not to take sides”.
However, employment relations experts Carol Jones and Richard Saundry* have found that some in line management seem to lack confidence to do so. All of us naturally tense up in the face of conflict and become ‘on our guard’. Managers’ lack of confidence to address emergent conflict may stem from fears of becoming embroiled in messy, legalistic proceedings and being held responsible for actions taken on the hoof – so they may prefer to initiate formal procedures to safeguard themselves against potential for criticism and recriminations.
Operational pressures may also distract them from tackling tasks perceived as onerous and fraught with high emotion. Moreover, they may also find it difficult to broker a solution without appearing to take sides; a challenge that almost suggests a requirement for mediator training.
Fortunately, managers do not need to become trained mediators to benefit from one or two core insights of mediation practice that can enable them to overcome their reluctance to tackle conflict situations.
How to handle emergent conflict calmly
1. When approaching employees in conflict, do not self-impose any pressure to find a quick solution. Decisions will have to taken – but not immediately. Allow space for yourself and the employees to get a measure of the problem. (Some matters, such as gross misconduct, will require more urgent action)
2. Address the situation with a genuine disposition of concerned curiosity. Remember, conflict will often generate opportunities for personal and organisational learning
3. Listen to the parties separately to understand them without feeling a need to respond with a judgement. You are fact finding and, more significantly, understanding their feelings and interests
4. As appropriate, bring the parties together to discuss their feelings and perspectives without promising to judge the situation or take instant decisions at the meeting. The meeting’s purpose is so they can hear each other’s points of view. At the end, it is vital to tell them when you will come back to them with your decisions about next steps
Is this simple approach difficult to enact? We all necessarily make instantaneous assessments of people and situations at work and socially, but a temporary reservation of judgement of the wrongs or rights of the situation – combined with a concern to understand the conflict – will enable investigation of the conflict and often serve to nip it in the bud. Dealing with conflict is not an easy task but using this method ensures that it should not be a risky undertaking to be feared.
What will result from this calm and cautious approach? At best, disagreements and misunderstandings will have been resolved via the initial one-to-one meetings. If not, the employees may well discover how to resolve matters themselves within the joint meeting. Or, the manager, in liaison with their manager and with HR’s support, may have concluded what steps to take to manage the conflict informally. At worst, if the conflict has proved intractable and irresolvable, you will have carried out an initial, measured and fair investigation so the situation can be dealt with under formal procedures as necessary.
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