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Although many of us will aim to work in harmony with our colleagues, human nature dictates that the occasional conflict in the workplace is inevitable. To commemorate International Conflict Resolution Day this month, we show HR managers and line managers how they can successfully manage and mediate between conflicting parties at the office.

The big picture of workplace conflict

Whether it’s a personality clash between two colleagues or an employee who feels that they have received unfair treatment from a manager, workplace conflict can manifest itself in a variety of ways. According to a recent survey by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), this is what the big picture of workplace conflict looks like…


The warning signs of conflict in the office

Some signs of conflict may be obvious, such as a heated exchange between two co-workers or a meeting between management and employee representatives that turns into a standoff. However, it’s important to remember that conflict isn’t always visible on the surface, because some individuals might hide their feelings as a way of coping with a problem, while a team might react to pressure by cutting itself off from the rest of the organisation.

What causes workplace conflict?

There are many situations that trigger conflict in the workplace. Below are some of the operational circumstances, cultural factors and behavioural patterns that often result in conflict.

  • Poor management

  • Unfair treatment

  • Unclear job roles

  • Inadequate training

  • Poor communication

  • Poor work environment

  • Lack of equal opportunities

  • Bullying and harassment

HR Managers and Advisors have the responsibility to detect any of the above, and work as impartial mediators between conflicting parties, regardless of rank.

Typical responses to conflict

People have different personalities, and often have varying reactions to conflicts which may arise in the workplace. If any of your employees appear to be manifesting the following responses, then it may be time to investigate the cause of such behaviour: 

  • Fight – An employee reacts in a challenging way, possibly through shouting or losing their temper.

  • Flight – An employee ignores the tension in the air. This is a common reaction - by ignoring a problem people hope it will go away.

  • Freeze – An employee becomes unsure of how to react, resulting in a passive approach. Although they might begin to deal with the issue, their work processes drift or become drawn out through indecision.

  • Face – An employee approaches a problem in a calm and rational way with a planned approach.

The implications of conflict in the workplace

Conflict can be detrimental to an organisation in a variety of different ways. Here are the top five symptoms to look out for.

  1. Motivation drops: Fewer people take on new tasks and there is a lack of engagement or input from employees at team meetings.

  2. Behaviour changes: Employees clash with other more frequently, and direct derogatory remarks at each other. This results in less social and team building events being organised within a company.

  3. Productivity lowers: A lack of motivation results in reluctance to perform tasks, and there are likely to be more queries and complaints if people are not getting along with each other.

  4. Sickness absence increases: Unhappiness will likely lead to stress, anxiety or depression, which ultimately leads to more time off work.

  5. Negative responses to staff surveys: These will indicate underlying dissatisfaction.

Six steps to managing conflict

HR professionals agree that any workplace conflict should be resolved at the earliest possible stage, particularly when there is risk of a dispute escalating into a legal headache for employers. Below are top six steps to resolving conflict in the workplace.

1. Acknowledge the problem exists

Some employers neglect the big picture warning signs and systematic patterns of conflict, such as decreased productivity and a high turnover of staff, and instead choose to live in denial. Managers should never ignore conflict, and simply need to address it head on.

2. Define the problem

When defining what issues may be creating conflict in the workplace, one must listen carefully to all parties involved in order to determine the cause and possible solution. Employees need to be given the opportunity to air their grievance, either formally or informally. In order to do this, they need to know who they can speak to within the organisation, and feel comfortable expressing their feelings and concerns.

3. Continuously maintain open and honest communication

Open and honest communication should be implemented as a general rule of engagement rather than a problem-solver. Where appropriate, it is better to encourage individuals to try and resolve any arising conflict in an informal way, rather than go through the formal channels of raising a grievance.

4. Find common ground and mutually beneficial solutions

In establishing a mutual agreement between two conflicting parties, you first need to understand the cause of the conflict, and mediate between the parties by communicating, consulting, encouraging joint problem solving, negotiating and empowering each party to take responsibly for their role in resolving the conflict.

5. Follow up and monitor actions

Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, it isn’t enough to simply agree upon a resolution, but you also need to act upon it with the view of improving circumstances that may be affecting two parties negatively. It is paramount that actions are followed up, as conflict could easily arise again if checks are not put in place.

6. Determine what actions should be taken if conflict continues unresolved

If the working relationship has broken down and is non-productive, the business will be at risk on a number of levels, and these factors need to be understood and acknowledged. Sometimes it is necessary to call on the services of a third party mediator. Organisations such as the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) offer external assistance when situations have not been resolved internally. Depending on the nature of the conflict, you could seek assistance for mediation, conciliation or arbitration.

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