Strategy & LeadershipHR EffectivenessWhy we need to redefine conflict resolution

Why we need to redefine conflict resolution

We are living through a time of increased industrial action. Industrial action at Royal Mail, SW trains and among university lecturers have all made the front pages recently. David Liddle, CEO, TCM, investigates the current state of conflict resolution, and makes a case for why our understanding of conflict resolution must change.

The traditional discipline and grievance procedures are failing. They cause misery, harm and stress plus the organisational cost of these pernicious and damaging processes is vast. If there is one thing HR and our business leaders could do to make a huge difference to employee wellbeing and organisational performance in the year ahead, it would be to completely rethink the way conflict is managed.

Conflict is an inevitable part of working life.  Personality clashes between colleagues, employees falling out with their managers, disagreements about who is responsible for what and allegations of misconduct or poor performance.  It’s not always the big stuff that causes problems either.  Often, bitter arguments can bubble up over  everything from how hot or cold the office temperature is, to how change is managed or how feedback is given by a line manager

As recent newspaper headlines have graphically illustrated, we are seeing a rising tide of incivility – both at work and across life in general.  We seem to have lost the ability to conduct the healthy, respective, constructive debate that leads to fresh thinking and new insights and feeds the innovation companies so badly need if they are to survive and thrive.

When teams are torn apart by disputes, productivity suffers, and engagement and motivation take a nosedive.  Managers waste disproportionate amounts of time trying to sort out problems that should never have been allowed to take hold in the first place. For those directly embroiled in some kind of workplace conflict, it is  unpleasant, emotionally draining and an outright damaging affair.  People become increasingly anxious and upset, often finding themselves unable to sleep and dreading the thought of having to go into work and face it all again the next morning.

What’s going wrong?

Two key factors are at the root of this issue.

The first is that managers typically lack the people skills and the confidence to manage conflict effectively in their teams.  It’s not their fault. They  often lack the basic training or the recognition that these are vital, not soft, skills. As a result, they don’t know how to stop normal, healthy debate tipping over into dysfunctional dispute or how to give difficult feedback in way which is empowering and drives growth.  Managers are often nervous about dealing with people who are angry and upset, in case they make the situation worse, or possibly expose themselves to accusations of unfairness.  Knowing how to manage conflict effectively is a vital skill in a manager’s toolbox – and HR needs to place more priority on equipping managers with the confidence, the courage and the competence to do it.

The second issue is our insistence on hanging onto the broken and ineffective formal procedures we currently use to deal with conflict at work.

When a dispute arises, our first instinct is to reach for the disciplinary and grievance or bullying and harassment procedure.  But these processes only serve to plunge people into unnecessarily adversarial situations where no-one wins.

It’s akin to tipping a bucket of cortisol (the stress hormone) over people’s heads at a time when they are already stressed. Such a response is divisive and it pushes the parties even further into an unhelpful attack/defend, right/wrong, win/lose mindset.  These broken frameworks offer a mirage of justice and an illusion of fairness. If you don’t believe me go an ask anyone who has been through one of these processes recently. No one wins and everyone loses.

It doesn’t have to be this way

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There are more constructive, collaborative and humane ways of managing conflict at work.  Mediation and facilitated conversations, for example, are proven, effective techniques which can help people get back on track.  So why aren’t we using them?

Part of the problem is that HR is often concerned that moving away from formal processes will get in the way of the organisation taking a tough stance on bad behaviour, or will expose it to costly legal action.  But there is in fact no statutory, mandatory or moral obligation on organisations to have  formal grievance or discipline procedures.  Provided organisations comply with the ACAS code, they can choose to take more constructive, productive approaches. One of these is the development of an overarching Resolution Policy.

HR’s role

HR has a critical role to play in shifting the emphasis in their organisation – away from grievance and towards resolution. There is a real opportunity for HR professionals to redefine their role and become the facilitators of resolution, rather than the ’police officers’ of the organisation and custodians of a policy framework that no-one likes nor benefits from.

HR need to encourage the business to take a more strategic approach to managing conflict, and to take the lead in developing values-driven, people-centred cultures where the emphasis is on sorting out issues through dialogue, rather than adversarial formal processes.

Taking an evidence based approach (in line with the CIPD’s new Profession Map) is also crucial.  Organisations need to get much better at understanding what is at the root of conflict and how it is affecting the business – and at using that evidence to inform development of strategies that will help shift the way the organisation is thinking and working.

Of course the issue is too big to be dealt with by HR alone.  The profession needs to work closely with senior leaders and union representatives to find common ground and explore new ways of managing conflict. Division and dogma sow the seeds of failure.  Pluralism and collaborative working are the way forward.

My challenge to the HR profession is to help bring about a ‘resolution revolution’.  Be innovative, be creative and do the right thing for your people. I can assure you; you’ll never look back!

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