Very few organisations have a conflict resolution policy. This gives a covert message that it’s not important. It also means that when conflict happens (and it will), no one is sure what to do so they don’t do anything until they’re at breaking point.
What generally happens when there is a conflict in the workplace?
It starts as a niggle. Nadia didn’t say ‘good morning’ to Adam two days in a row and when Nadia was on the phone, Adam put his finger to his lips and ‘shushed’ her.
At the staff meeting when Adam was speaking, Nadia rolled her eyes. Then Nadia sent Adam an email asking where some documents were and he found her tone offensive. Both started keeping score of any slight and adding it to their ‘log of claims’.
Weeks go by and Nadia and Adam are spending increasing amounts of time complaining about each other to anyone who’ll listen. Staff coalesce around the two combatants and those who don’t choose a side are despised as fence sitters. Productivity is down while everyone’s watching the drama unfold, and maybe subtly feeding it by supporting their ‘champion’.
Adam decides to see Frank, their manager, and reels off a list of Nadia’s transgressions. Frank says he will talk to her, which Adam translates as ‘Frank is going to make her stop’. He anxiously watches Frank’s office for the next few days but does not see Nadia enter. Now he is angry with Frank for not taking action and feels Frank is ‘useless’.
Finally, Adam can’t stand it any more and decides to see Frank again. He’s extremely upset and full of righteous anger. He has been ‘bullied’ and no one is doing anything about it. The manager has no idea about what to do with a ‘bullying’ complaint and asks Adam to put it in writing. Adam spends a lot of time making sure he includes ‘everything’ and, in the process, solidifies and entrenches his grievances. He really is the victim here and ‘everyone’ agrees with him.
Frank now has something to hand over to HR, which is just as well as he had no idea what to do. Both are good workers but Adam can be a bit precious and Nadia can be a bit pushy. They both have their faults. It’s all so childish and he hasn’t got time for this. Why can’t everyone just ‘get on’?
HR are concerned about the use of the word ‘bullying’ so, to mitigate all risk, they engage an investigator and inform Nadia that a complaint of bullying has been made against her.
Nadia does not react well when told she’s been accused of bullying. In fact, she’s so upset, she takes a week off on stress leave and tells HR she is filing a WorkCover claim.
In the words of the old ad, ‘Oh, Mr Hart, what a mess!’
How would this scenario have changed if the organisation had a workplace conflict resolution policy?
- The policy would emphasise the position that conflict resolution is everybody’s responsibility (just like OHS)
- It would stress the expectation that parties would engage in resolution processes in good faith
- It would outline a process for resolving disputes, the first step of which would be self-resolution. So when Adam and Nadia first became concerned about the other’s behaviour, they would know that they were expected to try and resolve their issues themselves
- It would discuss future action if self-resolution is unsuccessful. This may involve the manager/HR business partner/conflict resolution officer who could triage the complaint and determine the best course of action. Frank would have been trained in handling conflict between staff and could determine whether he could assist through conducting a facilitated discussion. He would also be skilled in deciding whether the case needed an external mediator, or whether the issues were serious enough to warrant an external investigator.
In the scenario presented above, resolution would have been achieved before the parties became entrenched and damaged, and before the flames were spread throughout the organisation.
Most managers deal with complaints that can be more accurately categorised as workplace conflict than bullying, so get a policy on workplace conflict in place asap. Then everyone will have a lot more time to get on with the job.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www. profitableresolutions.com