Nine steps to resolving workplace conflict

Conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction and arises in even the most harmonious workplaces. The Australian Mediation Association (AMA) believes Dan Dana’s words say it best: “Unmanaged conflict is the largest reducible cost in organisations today, and the least recognised.”

The AMA’s research shows workplace conflict can result in performance problems, high absenteeism and high employee turnover, many of which may be prevented by timely conflict-resolution strategies.

After 15 years in human resources, HR expert Glenda Lobo believes having a culture of openness, transparency and trust is vital to preventing conflicts from getting out of hand.

But what happens if tensions do spill over? Lobo shares the best ways to approach conflict and defuse it before things blow up.

1. Recognise the warning signs

These include signs of toxic culture like gossiping, high absenteeism – or its opposite, presenteeism (being at work but completely disengaged) – and avoidance of the other party.

Lobo believes when conflict arises from a professional matter, such as disagreements over budgeting, for example, there’s usually a simple and appropriate solution.

“If I’m fighting with you for funds that you’re getting access to and I’m not, there are ways to work that out in a professional sense,” she says.

2. Start a conversation

The next step is to go to each of the parties and establish if there’s a willingness to resolve the conflict. Generally speaking, once the conflict has been acknowledged, both parties are keen to resolve it.

3. Meet individually with the parties

These meetings have a number of functions:

  1. Brief each party on what to expect from the facilitated meeting they are about to enter into.
  2. Set rules and boundaries that both parties must agree to. Examples of rules that are helpful include:
    • Ensuring each person is listened to, and not speaking over each other.
    • No interrupting.
    • No name-calling or personal attacks.
    • The discussion always remains professional and respectful.
  3. Depending on the gravity of the conflict, recommend the parties sign a confidentiality agreement. “Without confidentiality, you won’t get the vulnerability in the room that’s needed to get to the crux of the matter,” Lobo says. “Putting it in writing means they’re more likely to stand by it, and it elevates the importance of the process.”

4. Choose a neutral space for consultation

Lobo suggests taking the mediation out of the normal workplace to a neutral area. Find somewhere private in order to encourage openness and trust.

5. Bring the parties together

Once together, allow each party a chance to give their account of the issues.

“Ask them to work out between themselves who will go first, remembering they’re both going to get an opportunity to speak,” Lobo recommends. “I encourage them to speak to each other, not to me, as this is vital to reconnect them.”

6. Summarise what you’ve heard

“One of the principles of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is to summarise what each party has said, reflecting back to them what you have heard the issues to be,” Lobo says. “I ask them to agree and to correct me if they believe I’ve misunderstood the issues, and that’s okay because it’s quite a fluid process.”

7. Discuss the potential solutions together

Summarise both points of view by writing down the common matters, aiming for about three bullet points each.

Now ask the parties to have an honest discussion about potential solutions. It is essential these are done together for the solutions to work. Note: this may initially require some individual discussions to encourage further willingness.

8. Reach an agreement

After robust discussions, the facilitator should summarise again – with the intention of reaching a solid agreement. Write down the solutions agreed to.

9. After the meeting

“If the matter isn’t fully resolved, then reschedule as soon as possible after the first meeting,” Lobo says.

Once the solutions are agreed upon, schedule a catch-up one week later to ensure they are being followed. And remember: conflict can be positive.

“Sometimes conflict can be good,” Lobo says. “Sometimes a bit of disruption or pushing you outside of your comfort zone, questioning what you’re doing and whether you could do it better isn’t a bad thing. It can lead to better feedback loops and more willingness to give and receive feedback, which may lead to more effective, productive performance.”

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