Putting out Fires

Last week, I was at a sales meeting with the HR Manager of an organisation. Walking to his office I couldn’t help but notice the number of fire safety notices pinned around the building. It got me thinking. The probability of a fire breaking out in the workplace is far less than conflict between people. Then why is it when it comes to workplace conflict there are no safety notices to show people what to do or where to go. Conflict in the workplace, unlike fire, is inevitable. It costs companies money every day. Ignored or badly handled conflict burns through your organisation’s time, energy and profits.

As a manager, statistically, you’ll spend 30% of your time dealing with badly handled conflict. Almost all managers believe that doing this is part and parcel of their job. Snuffing out flames as they arise, rather than treating the root cause of the fire often leaves the problem untreated, it can also be a missed opportunity.

Good fire precautionary measures (like smoke detectors, fire blankets and fire extinguishers), mean most people never experience being caught in a workplace fire, yet we still take part in the monthly fire drill. Staff are trained as Fire Wardens so in the event of a fire they know just how to behave and how to advise people. Organisations spend money on fire safety, because we all know that if these precautionary measures are not taken, the outbreak of a fire would be catastrophic to individuals and to business.

Fortunately, unlike workplace fire, conflict can be reframed as a constructive force. With conflict, there is energy that can be harnessed and redirected in productive ways. So it starts to make you money rather than burn away at your profits.

To leverage the positives of conflict, you should get your organisation to prepare your people for conflict in the same way that you do with fire.

Precautionary measures must be taken to prevent interpersonal conflicts in the workplace. There is a need for appropriate training for management and staff to acquire self-awareness around what it is that ‘triggers’ them into conflict and how best to manage when ‘triggered’.

Managers must be trained as ‘fire wardens’ with proficiency and the soft skills to self-manage and competently advise staff in conflict. Regular ‘drills’ training should become a routine aspect of the job, in order to achieve a culture of effective conflict management within the organisation.

Any manager’s response to workplace conflict is simply a pattern of behaviour, it can be learned and it can be unlearned and it can be replaced with better, more efficient strategies, such as those we have developed and tested over the years at OAK.

So yes, conflict is inevitable and needs to be accepted as a fact of your company’s life, but do you want to regard it as a series of fires that you have to run around constantly trying to put out, or as a source of fuel?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Mary Ellen

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