Want to resolve workplace conflict? Third, train your managers

My last post looked at the second pillar of conflict resolution: training staff. This is important so staff have the tools to resolve their conflicts before they escalate.

The third pillar is training managers so they have the skills to assist their staff, and to know when it is appropriate for them to do so and when they should refer matters to others to handle.

Managers are usually appointed because they are technically proficient and they are assumed to have the people management skills that are an essential part of the role. Unfortunately, they may have few skills in conflict resolution, or sometimes none at all.

So, with an already heavy workload, when faced the staff conflict, they often do nothing.

I have lost count of the number of parties who have told me that they have all but begged their manager to organise a mediation but that nothing happened for months. I am also regularly disappointed by the number of managers who say that they ‘don’t have time for this’ as if managing people is somehow not their job.

But, in the face of inaction, all that matters to the parties (Adam in the scenario I’ve been using in previous posts) is that Frank* is not taking him seriously, doesn’t care about him and is ‘gutless’.

Now, whoever eventually steps in to handle the situation has to deal with Adam’s anger with Nadia* and his anger with Frank, which makes resolution even more difficult.

And while months go by, other staff join in the chorus of anger and disappointment with Frank letting this situation escalate. Now, in addition to Adam and Nadia, Frank has a PR problem with the rest of the staff.

Conflict resolution training for managers would cover all of the information in the staff training described in my last post. In addition, it would look at values (being open, professional, acting with integrity, treating others with empathy and respect, being aware of personal triggers), the importance of ensuring people feel ‘heard’ by giving them complete attention and avoiding distractions (excessive note taking, looking at a phone/watch/computer), and making sure staff feel safe (close door, have support person if needed).

So, how would Frank handle the conflict between Adam and Nadia if he had some conflict resolution training?

First, he would ask himself:

  • Are you the best person for the job?
  • Do you have the appropriate skills/values/qualities to handle this situation?
  • Will you be perceived as neutral?
  • Can you maintain the requisite level of confidentiality?
  • Do you have the time?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, Frank should probably find someone else within the organisation or get outside help.

However, if Frank feels he can assist, he might:

  • Meet with each party separately
  • Discuss confidentiality and limitations to that
  • Outline what the process will be (meet with both parties to determine the best way to resolve their issues)
  • Ask if they have any questions.

Then, he would listen while they tell him what happened (what are they really upset about). He would:

  • Listen for content
  • Listen for sub-text
  • Probe for more information but not get hung up on ‘facts’
  • Ask clarifying questions
  • Reflect back what he has heard them say to gain agreement about their concerns
  • Ask them to think about options for resolution/next steps.

If Adam and Nadia have expressed a genuine desire to resolve their issues, and both are happy for him to handle the matter, Frank would:

  • Choose a time/date that is suitable for all of them and book a room where they will not be disturbed
  • Establish ground rules: parties to use active listening, behave respectfully, make room for the fact that there may have been misunderstandings, etc
  • Outline the process that he will follow: in turn, each will talk about their concerns without interruption. Frank would note the issues that are common to both parties and frame these in neutral language
  • Gain agreement about where to start
  • Allow parties to talk through the issues. He would use tools such as summarising, reflecting back (‘What I heard you say …’), clarifying, underscoring agreement (‘It seems you both …’), and watching for ‘a ha’ moments
  • Focus on the future. After each party has gained a thorough understanding of the other’s concerns, Frank would ask them to develop some options that both can agree to about how they can resolve their concerns
  • Document the outcomes if necessary.

After the meeting, Frank would organise some regular check ins with Nadia and Adam to ensure things between them are improving. If they are, the gaps between the monitoring will become longer and longer until finally it is unnecessary.

However, if further meetings are required, and Frank becomes pessimistic about a positive outcome, it could be time to call in the cavalry. An external provider might recommend some different interventions, such as conflict coaching for one or both parties, that may be able to move them toward a more lasting resolution.

If your organisation has implemented a conflict resolution policy and trained its staff, the issues that managers have to deal with are likely to be more complex. So it’s imperative that managers have all the tools, skills and strategies to assist their staff to resolve their issues in the soonest possible time and at the lowest possible level.

Good staff relationships are crucial to the healthy functioning of any organisation and effective and efficient conflict resolution keeps everybody feeling valued and supported. And that’s great for the bottom line as well.

* Names in scenario in previous post.


Helen Collins works in a variety of dispute resolution modes including mediation, coaching and training, and conducts investigations. She assists businesses to increase productivity by managing workplace conflict.

Contact her at profitableresolutions@netpsace.net.au or visit her website at www. profitableresolutions.com

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