Workplace conflict that is not bullying?

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal recently heard the case of McEwan and Comcare (Compensation) of Australia (AAT). Notably, the tribunal denied claims that persistent disagreements between an employee and his managers constituted workplace bullying and harassment. In June 2022, Senior Member Dr Alexander rejected claims that ongoing workplace disagreements led to a diagnosis of depression and generalised anxiety disorder on the part of the employee. The case is a timely reminder of the importance of early intervention practices in the workplace.

Disagreement and conflict are a natural part of any organisation and often result in positive outcomes. Healthy disagreement is constructive and can encourage progressive change, new ideas and strengthen interpersonal relationships.

However, minor disagreements can quickly spiral out of control and turn into conflict when not managed appropriately. Managers who fail to identify the early warning signs of potentially damaging conflict are more susceptible to workplace injury claims, dysfunctional employee relations, decreased productivity and increased financial costs associated with such problems. If left unresolved, minor disagreements aggregate and quickly evolve into major conflicts that are harmful and difficult to solve.

Disagreement Vs Conflict

Disagreements are not always harmful. Constructive debate is necessary for the active growth of a business and often inspires creativity and new ideas. Disagreements are usually easily resolved by those directly involved, but may need to be managed to ensure positive outcomes.  

Conflict, on the other hand, is characterised by noticeable stress and tension that worsens over time. If left unaddressed, conflict only gets worse and often results in serious adverse outcomes that can have long-lasting effects on an organisation.

The early warning signs of unhealthy conflict

  • Multiple disagreements taking place at once
  • Disagreements being left unresolved
  • Significant changes to an individual’s or group’s behaviour 
  • Increased absenteeism 
  • Self or group isolation
  • Low productivity
  • Inappropriate or rude communication
  • Defensiveness
  • Increased distrust of other
  • High turnover rate
  • The forming of cliques or subgroups

What early intervention strategies can you adopt? 

Don’t be afraid of conflict

Engaging in short-term conflict may be necessary to prevent largescale problems from developing. Avoiding conflict is not often possible and can create greater problems in the mid to long term. It is important to understand that engaging in conflict in the short term is not about ‘winning’ and should be considered a process of working towards a mutually agreed solution.

To engage in short term conflict constructively:

  • Learn to negotiate effectively
  • Make your feelings known by saying what you need and want clearly
  • Understand the needs and feelings of others
  • Do not think situations will resolve themselves and intervene early

Show Empathy   

Show genuine concern, understand that people are unique, and display emotions differently. Try to create an open and empathetic work environment that promotes emotional openness. Establish effective communication channels that encourage employees to bring problems to your attention, ensure they are supported and encouraged to talk about issues both inside and outside of the workplace.  

Acknowledge problems

Acknowledging the existence of a problem does not mean you have to agree on the cause. Denying a problem exists simply because you don’t agree on the cause, will only worsen a problem and delay resolution. By recognising the problem’s presence, you are willing to address it. In many cases just listening and understanding that someone is experiencing stress can be an effective resolution strategy in itself. Alternatively, it will lay the foundation for a constructive dialogue, the first step in developing a mutually agreed solution.  

Agree on action

This may not come about easily or quickly, however developing an action plan is critical to effective early intervention.

  • Set realistic goals and desired outcomes
  • Agree on a solution
  • Agree on what steps need to be taken
  • Set timeframes
  • Do not overpromise or agree to anything that cannot or is unlikely to happen
  • Identify responsibilities. Who will take what step? How will they do it? What support will they need?
  • Agree on how each step will be monitored and evaluated  
  • Agree to discuss the action plan regularly and to make changes as needed
  • Understand that changes may need to be made and agree to discuss them collaboratively

Support

Provide ongoing support to the agreed action plan and individuals. This may include seeking external expertise on conflict resolution, emotional support services, or advice from others outside of your business area.

Build and maintain conflict resolutions skills  

Develop conflict resolution skills amongst your team so they are equipped to handle conflict when it arises.

  • Learn what stress management techniques work for you
  • Be aware of your own feelings and stressors
  • Learn about emotional intelligence and empathy
  • Respect differences
  • Know what resources and support services are available    

Adopting the principles of early intervention in your workplace will significantly reduce the chance of conflicts ending up in formal processes. Minimal conflict work environments are more productive, experience fewer injuries, have higher job satisfaction amongst employees, and have lower overall business costs. Know what to look for and intervene early.

If your staff are having trouble completing the above steps, or if you have incompatible personalities in the workplace, you may need external assistance. 

Author:

Matt Truelove is a highly experienced investigator with over 13 years’ experience in
conducting complex and sensitive investigations in the NSW Police and the Australian Public
Service.

Contact: 

Christa Ludlow is a lawyer with over 20 years’ experience in employment law and administrative law, and a qualified workplace investigator, coach and mediator. She is a Coaching Director with WEIR Consulting. Christa can be contacted via email or on (02) 8379 1298 / 1300 934 726

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