Avoid The Unnecessary Escalation of Conflict

Last June I was invited to a meeting with the HR Manager and CEO of a State Regulatory Body to discuss an issue regarding a manager of a particular department in which there were ongoing problems including complaints from direct reports, departures and a potential grievance procedure against the manager. Higher management has tried to intervene in what appears to be low-level disagreements over job description but have not succeeded. While my proposed interventions including mediation and conflict management training were initially well received, a strategic (legal) decision was made to undertake an Investigation.

Nine months later the Investigator is just completing the ‘investigative stage and still waiting for final reports and will move to Report Stage probably in the coming weeks’. Best indicators are that it will be one year from start to finish. During that time what do you think has happened to working relationships in that Department? How well has the Department performed? How has the rest of the organisation been impacted by what is going on in that Department? How much has this cost the organisation? The External Investigators invoice for somewhere between €10,000 and €20,000 is the smallest part of the cost.

Not just at HR but at top management level, organisations need to take a look at their processes, and the ways in which all these low-level, everyday disagreements and tensions are handled. How can these be dealt with informally? Do managers have the skills and is there a kind of culture in the workplace that encourages and allows issues to be discussed?

There’s an opportunity here to demonstrate best practice: a positive working culture where people have enough belief and trust in their organisation that they are willing to talk openly about problems, to failures and weaknesses. The biggest mistake organisations make is to see any kind of conflict – even at the level of minor disagreement – as unwelcome and a problem, something to be avoided, and where it occurs, should be immediately swept into formal grievance processes. Introducing an Integrated Conflict Management System around conflict and conversations should be a platform for improving the working culture as a whole, encouraging trust and openness.

A useful starting point for change is to carry out a conflict audit to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your current provision in terms of what happens with complaints, whistleblowing, complaint handling, grievance resolution, performance management, absence management and what relevant learning and development do we have in place. What role models do we have in our leadership team? Do senior executives encourage ‘constructive conflict’ supporting opportunities for open conversations and respecting alternative views? Is there a consistent message to managers and staff?

Some managers have the inbuilt skills to manage conflict constructively. Others will need support if they have to deal with difficult situations and difficult conversations. Do you have management programmes that include soft skill training so that your managers are conflict competent? Do you motivate and train your employees to have difficult conversations with each other and their managers, for example how to challenge so-called banter, unwanted advances or perceived managers bullying?

Introduce a system that prevents the pitfalls of poorly managed conflict and instead promotes innovation, trust and morale, leading to the development of sustainable working relationships and growth. A system that welcomes good faith and encourages resolution of conflict at the lowest level through dialogue and negotiation.

Posted By: Austin Kenny

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