Book Image

The Manager's Guide to Mediating Conflict

By : Alison J Love
Book Image

The Manager's Guide to Mediating Conflict

By: Alison J Love

Overview of this book

Table of Contents (10 chapters)

The rise in workplace disputes


If you find yourself spending increasing amounts of time dealing with workplace conflicts, managing the impact on an individual's performance, and being dragged into formal processes that are rarely helpful, then you are not alone! Numerous surveys report that there has been a considerable increase in workplace conflict in recent years and the time taken to resolve these conflicts using formal processes (disciplinary and grievance processes) has also increased. In addition, employment tribunal claims continue to rise year on year. The rise in conflict does vary from sector to sector with the public sector in the UK experiencing considerably higher numbers of disputes than in the private sector. One study suggests that the IT and Construction sectors have the lowest levels and organizational culture, management accountability, and conflict management skills all have an impact. Over 40 percent of conflicts are said to relate to relationship issues and this is consistent across all sectors (CIPD Employee Relations Survey 2011 and Workplace (UK) Conflict Survey 2011). While the context and extent of conflict can vary, it can arise anywhere and the skills and processes to positively resolve conflict, which we will discuss in later chapters, are in themselves important in promoting a culture that reduces the levels of destructive conflict and costly disputes.

So why is there so much conflict in the modern workplace? The reasons are incredibly diverse, but all circulate around the central issue of different perspectives, as the following figure illustrates. Some of these problems are explored in more detail in the following list.

  • Increasing workloads: This is now considered to be the primary cause of conflict. In the current economic climate, the result of staff cuts or funding cuts often lead to employees being asked to do more work with less resources. Problems also arise in relation to the fair allocation of work between individuals or where employees are being asked to take on new and different tasks.

  • Personality conflicts: These are very common in practice and are reported to be the second most common cause of conflict. We all have different personality traits that impact on our preferred working and communication styles and ability (or otherwise) to manage relationships. Certain styles are more likely to clash with each other than others. Problems arise if these differences are not understood, accepted, or managed.

  • Globalization: This results in more employees from different cultures working together than ever before.

  • Lack of job opportunities: Employees cannot leave and find alternative jobs and so are forced to remain in conflict situations when previously they would have "walked".

  • Job insecurity and economic worries: These impact individuals' stress levels, which reduce the ability to manage relationships and conflicts positively.

  • Inter-generational differences: With the abolition of retirement ages and huge variations in the demographics of the workforce, differing work ethics, communication styles, and values are starting to impact. Generation X and Y tend not to respond positively to the more traditional management practices, engage and use technology in different ways, and their expectations of work tend to vary from those of the older generations. In some cases, disputes may arise as a result of older workers extending their working lives and blocking opportunities for younger workers.

  • Pace of change: Organizational changes created by the constant need to innovate can also create conflict as change can be difficult and stressful for many employees to cope with or adapt to. If not implemented properly, change can create fear, resentment, and questions of unfair treatment.

  • New ways of working and communicating: In particular new modes of communication and remote working can significantly reduce the opportunities for face-to-face communication. This increases the chances of communication being misunderstood and less effective. E-mail communications or the use of social media, for example, often cause problems as much of the communication (contained in such things as body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions) is missing.

While you may have little influence over many of these issues, you can still do a lot to prevent these causes damaging working relationships and creating ongoing conflict. The details on how conflict can be prevented in these situations is beyond the remit of this book, but some useful tips to bear in mind are as follows:

  1. Don't avoid the problem: In all the cases that I have been involved in, the situation could either have been avoided all together or improved if some action had been taken at an earlier stage. In practice, the vast majority of conflicts become destructive and damaging because a "difficult conversation" is avoided rather than tackled, or a manager has failed to intervene. Avoidance is never a good policy as resentments fester and communication suffers; what was a small issue to start with becomes something far more significant. So my advice is to always tackle the problem rather than avoid it and intervene early.

  2. Skill up: By utilizing the mediation and conflict management resolution skills in the next chapter, you can tackle these issues in a positive and constructive way.

  3. Engage and communicate: An increased level of engagement and communication with employees is important in helping you avoid and manage disputes. Whenever possible, you should invest the time in face-to-face communication and really listen to them. If you know your employees and understand what is important to them and their values and motivations, then you can adapt your management style and anticipate problems. If you build up an open and trusting relationship and know your employees you are more likely to spot problems arising and it is easier to have the difficult conversations and get to the root of any problems.

  4. Watch out for stress: There is a clear link between stress and conflict. A common example is when conflict arises from increased workloads or the enforced rapid adaptation to organizational change. Stress also leads to a decline in an individual's ability to deal with conflict situations appropriately so the situation spirals and worsens. Therefore, you should do what you can to reduce stress as far as possible. This can be achieved by things such as providing employees with as much control as possible over their workload, increased involvement in decision making, improved engagement and communication, and flexibility in how and when employees work.

  5. Pay attention in times of change: When change is being implemented, the need to engage and communicate is even greater. It will help if employees understand the reasons for the change and are clear on how the change process will be managed. Communication should be constant throughout the process so that employees are kept up to date. If employees are struggling with the changes, do not ignore this; communicate and listen some more and demonstrate patience and empathy.

Prevention, as they say, is always better than cure, so these steps are essential to prevent conflict escalating and to tackle any issues that may require mediation later down the road. The techniques and skills used in mediation, however, are useful in more informal settings, so don't think that mediation is only an option once an issue or situation has escalated.