Conflict in the workplace – taking a fresh approach

We’ve been reflecting on the changing pattern of some of the instructions we’ve been receiving as we emerge into a new normal. It feels as though organisations and their people have been in survival mode, trying to focus on just getting through the pandemic. As we regain some of our freedoms, start returning to workplaces and thinking beyond the pandemic, it’s becoming apparent that problems that have been suppressed are now bubbling up into really challenging workplace disputes.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the timing fits with ACAS publishing its report on estimated costs of workplace conflict. The executive summary is worth a read, and the suggestion that the annual cost of conflict for UK employers works out at an average of just over £1000 for each employee is worth pausing on. The management time involved can be an enormous strain on an organisation.

The executive summary in the ACAS report promotes “conflict competence” and early intervention, noting that reflecting on conflict is a real opportunity to create fairer and more inclusive workplaces. Employers are encouraged to invest in effective early resolution mechanisms, and place greater emphasis on repairing employment relationships. And it’s worth noting that this works two ways – there needs to be early and effective resolution of performance and disciplinary concerns, as well as grievances, as a poorly managed disciplinary or capability process may itself lead to a grievance. Don’t wait for the issue to get out of hand!

A new approach

ACAS suggests that performance and disciplinary issues should be resolved in a way that focuses on learning and avoids blame – looking for better relationships right across an organisation. Do you consider your disciplinary process as a real opportunity to improve behaviour, rather than apportion blame? The very fact that that there are often findings of ‘guilt’ and that ‘warnings’ are given, means that the formal procedures inevitably often drive people further apart, rather than resolve issues.

In supporting our clients, we’re always exploring how to resolve issues in a truly human way, still by using the organisation’s standard procedures where appropriate, but approached in a much more collaborative way with the employee. This is a way of addressing and trying to resolve the issue ‘with’ the employee, rather than applying a process ‘to’ them, where they’re simply on the receiving end. Is it always necessary to apportion blame? Perhaps there is a better resolution through each party understanding why an issue has arisen in the first place and why the other feels the way they do? We’re familiar with the principles of NVC (Nonviolent Communication) and Restorative Practice, and have seen some really difficult issues resolved in a truly collaborative way.

‘trying to resolve the issue ‘with’ the employee, rather than applying a process ‘to’ them …. Is it always necessary to apportion blame?’

Conflict is an essential ingredient of a creative forward thinking organisational culture. It can encourage open mindedness, innovation and business growth – it can be an amazing catalyst, and managed well can lead to greater employee engagement and motivation. If we’re going to have greater diversity in our organisations, with the innovation and creativity that that brings, then we need to ensure we manage it well. If conflict can be addressed in a positive open way, with true connection achieved between individuals who disagree, there is real opportunity for some exciting developments.

It’s important to ensure that any steps taken are legally compliant, but don’t let the legal principles drive the way you think and feel about a situation – let your organisation’s values and a naturally human approach lead the way, with compliance tucking in behind.

‘…don’t let the legal principles drive the way you think and feel about a situation – let your organisation’s values and a naturally human approach lead the way …’

The best leaders will be able to hold the paradoxical views of their colleagues and unite them for a common purpose.

Don’t overlook the importance of learning

Once you’ve addressed an issue, how often do you pause and consider what the learning might be? There are always learning points, some very easy to implement. As organisations begin to focus more on diversity and inclusion, are you learning what really goes on in your organisation? There will always be some very simple practical steps that might have made a significant difference to a dispute that got out of hand. Don’t let the moment slip by as you plan for wider more significant changes in the organisation.

What’s the future direction?

In the midst of the significant challenges in the world right now, there is also some positive direction of change. It’s widely reported that people are thinking more consciously as consumers. Businesses are needing to evolve to meet these expectations. It’s now more mainstream for organisations to focus on the purpose, sustainability and ethics of their business, and the BCorp movement is gaining momentum. Employees also have increased expectations about where they work and whether their employer and its culture are aligned to their personal values. This suggests an exciting time ahead for organisations that value the power that comes from passionate and motivated people caring about others and the planet.

All of that needs new skills. Re-thinking your organisation’s approach to conflict is a great place to start.

Our comment

Take a moment and reflect on your organisation’s resolution procedures. Are they just about limiting the threat of litigation, or do they take into account all the other human costs that are incurred along the way? Early investment in new approaches would make a real difference – not only saving time, legal and human costs, but also benefiting from the real opportunities that can come from taking a fresh approach to conflict.