The Ticking Time Bomb Waiting for you at Work

As they returned to work after the holidays, I'm sure  many managers were secretly hoping that the tensions and conflicts of the workplace would  have disappeared over summer. That Farah would no longer complain about how Susan isn’t pulling her weight. That miraculously Andrew would get his monthly report completed without having to be nagged for the umpteenth time. That Simon wouldn’t snap at his secretary and reduce her to tears.

Will their hopes be realised? Almost definitely not.

Avoiding conflict does not make it go away

Most managers hope that conflicts and tensions in the workplace will just “go away”, when in reality they rarely if ever disappear on their own. It’s natural to want to hide in your office and avoid the emotions outside, because they can be distressing and confronting. But that is merely conflict avoidance.  

Conflict avoidance creates real problems for HR professionals when it means problems are allowed to fester until they simply can’t be ignored any more. By that stage the manager feels justified in “turning it over to HR” because it needs “specialist handling”.

If managers in your organisation do this, it’s creating even more problems for you down the track. A recent study[i] showed that how a leader approaches conflict can affect organisational “norms” about how poor workplace behaviour should be handled. Other studies have shown that employees observe leaders closely and copy their approaches.[ii] Letting things slide can encourage others to accept conflict – for example, “Yes, Simon’s rude but that’s just the way he is.” “Carmen hasn’t given me any feedback, so why should I do it for my team?”

So what can you do to make sure these time bombs don’t land on your desk? Here are four approaches.

  1. Encourage your workplace to practice conflict prevention.

This includes treating co-workers respectfully, communicating clearly and courteously, using collaborative management styles, supporting diversity in the workplace, setting up transparent procedures for staff opportunities, and handling grievances and complaints promptly and fairly.

       2.  Bring in outside help.

If you work in an organisation where people don’t have the ability to communicate in tricky situations without help, you might suggest introducing a third party into the discussions. Many organisations only bring in a mediator or facilitator when workplace conflict has reached a stalemate. I think it can and should be introduced earlier. A skilled independent third party who sits in or provides pre- and post-meeting coaching can help your staff have productive staff meetings, handle a difficult conversation, and communicate better with their team. This is another way of preventing conflict. It is also a way for you as an HR professional to add value to the organisation through your expertise and contacts. If you have the necessary skills and are seen as neutral in the dispute, you could offer to do it yourself.

       3.  When the situation cannot forward without help, employ conflict resolution.

This is often when the mediator is called in. For mediation to work, the parties must still have some investment in the workplace and in their jobs. They must also be willing to take part in the process and focus on the future. Of course, if the conflict is serious, conflict resolution may not be appropriate and disciplinary action may be needed.  Sometimes a specific dispute resolution procedure will be required under your workplace policy, employment contract, award or enterprise agreement (the Fair Work Act 2009 requires that enterprise agreements and awards contain a dispute resolution clause to cover disputes over certain matters).

       4.   Educate leaders

Some leaders won’t understand the value of your interventions. They may be too distant from the battlefield  to know there is a problem. You will need some additional ammunition to change their minds. Find someone senior who is sympathetic and can support your case, or draw the leader’s attention to what competitors are doing in this area. Point out potential or existing costs (with figures) in workers compensation, termination payouts, sick leave and reputational damage.

Whether you need all four approaches or only one, being proactive rather than reactive can make the difference between a workplace where people want to come to work, or where they would prefer to hide in their office.

Christa Ludlow is a workplace lawyer, accredited mediator and adviser on workplace issues. She is the director of Working Knowledge.

[i] Gelfand, M. J., Leslie, L. M., Keller, K., & de Dreu, C. (2012). Conflict cultures in organizations: How leaders shape conflict cultures and their organizational-level consequences, Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(6), 1131

[ii] Cited in Robert Sutton, Good Boss Bad Boss, (2012) Hachette, 31-32

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