Why don’t we see unresolved workplace conflict as dangerous?

Humans have a keen sense of danger. Although some people want to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ by climbing mountains or jumping out of planes or driving fast cars around a track, the rest of us take great efforts not to get hurt.

When we think about dangerous situations we might face in a workplace, we think about a fire, or falls, or being exposed to dangerous chemicals and, because we have regulations about such things, our likelihood of being injured in this way is small.

Let’s look at how we handle fire. When we join an organisation, we probably attend an induction where we are told who the fire wardens are and where the meeting point is should our building need to be evacuated. We’ll be told about the fire blanket in the kitchen and where the fire extinguisher is. We’ll see photos of the fire wardens around the office and have a couple of fire drills a year to make sure we know what to do should a real fire break out.

So, we know exactly what to do in case of a fire, and we know the fire wardens have been trained to help us get out of the building safely.

These good preventative measures (like smoke detectors, fire blankets and fire extinguishers), mean most people never experience being in a fire, but we still take part in the drills, and businesses pay for fire wardens to be trained and for fire fighting equipment because we all know fire can be very, very dangerous.

Unresolved conflict can also be very, very dangerous too but it’s taking some time for people and businesses to see it that way. The induction program may mention something about a conflict resolution policy, if you’re lucky, but you probably won’t be given a copy. It seems to be something no one wants to think about, but then it happens and no one is really sure what to do. Will it blow over? Is it a personality conflict? Are they just being petty? Is it an HR thing?

Unlike a fire, nearly everyone has either had a conflict with someone they work with, or knows someone who has. These conflicts often lead to increased stress, toxic workplaces, poor productivity, illness, absenteeism, WorkCover claims, increased staff turnover, low morale, divided workplaces … the list goes on and on.

Yet despite these ‘injuries’ to staff and the business, the importance of pre-emptive measures and processes to deal with conflict in the workplace seems to escape us.

So, I’m proposing that we start seeing unmanaged workplace conflict as being as dangerous as a fire. And I’m also proposing a system to deal with it.

We start by making sure that, at induction, everyone is given a copy of the conflict resolution policy and receives some simple training in how to resolve their concerns with the others.

The next part of the system is appointing conflict resolution officers (CROs) within the workplace who have an interest in, and commitment to, helping others to resolve conflict. Their CRO work would be on top of their normal duties, just like fire wardens, and they would also have special training (perhaps in mediation and conflict coaching).

If a staff member cannot satisfactorily resolve their concerns with another, they would let the CRO know there is a problem (smoke alarm). The CRO would then meet with both parties to determine the most appropriate course of action (triage). Can the CRO handle the situation (fire blanket)? Does the CRO have a conflict of interest and should they pass the matter to another CRO (fire extinguisher)? Do they feel the situation warrants external assistance to investigate/mediate/coach (fire brigade)?

And to make sure everyone remains vigilant, some regular training (fire drill) will remind everyone that managing conflict is just as important as managing a fire.

This system also has the advantage of dealing with the small sparks of a conflict before it gets out of control and becomes a wildfire. Much fewer injuries that way.

Helen Collins works in a variety of dispute resolution modes including mediation, coaching, facilitation and training. 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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