May 30, 2014

Managing conflict in the workplace

In a perfect world, the workplace would be a harmonious and happy place.

In reality, however, the mixture of cultures and personalities within a workforce can lead to tension and disagreements between different groups or individual employees. It can sometimes be hard to unpick where the conflict has begun but an early intervention will ensure that things are not allowed to escalate.

The Signs of Conflict

It is sometimes challenging to spot the signs of conflict as they can be both visible and invisible. Obvious indicators are when you notice an increased sense of dissatisfaction through arguments or sharp comments. However, sometimes an individual can become withdrawn and will isolate themselves from others and the organisation as a whole. It is important not to ignore any signs of conflict as they can easily escalate into something much more severe and damaging.

Common symptoms of conflict can be:

  • a lack of motivation amongst staff
  • changes in behaviour of individuals or groups
  • increased sickness absence
  • a drop in productivity

When faced with conflict, individuals have a basic instinct to fight it, flee from it or freeze and hope it will all go away. Only by facing up to the conflict and tackling the issues head-on will there be any realistic chance of it being resolved.

The Cause of Conflict

Conflict can often arise from feelings of injustice or unequal treatment. Sometimes this is valid and sometimes not, so an individual’s own personal values will determine their reaction to different events. Other causes can be poor management, a lack of appropriate training, poor communication, or an increased workload.

A significant cause can be due to bullying or harassment, either by a colleague or a manager. It goes without saying that this will always need to be dealt with promptly and appropriately, and within the parameters of the organisation’s policies and procedures.

Personalities often play a large part in conflict and can often be the most challenging thing to deal with when managing people. If changes are made to the role or workplace, this can often be a cause of stress to an individual. As personalities can change when a person feels threatened or stressed, this is the time when a flare up of emotions is most likely to occur.

Managing Conflict

Developing an overall strategy to manage and resolve conflict will enable challenging situations to be controlled more easily. Strategies for managing groups and individuals may vary but the principles will be broadly the same.

The key to preventing conflict is to:

  • ensure that you communicate appropriately and fully with employees, allowing consultation on changes to the business, role or working environment;
  • develop sound and fair policies and procedures which will ensure that people are treated equally;
  • ensure all managers have well-developed people skills;
  • recognise the changing needs of the workforce with a solid training and development plan.

The key to managing conflict is to:

  • make sure you have a thorough and fair grievance procedure so that employees know how their issues will be dealt with and managers know how to deal with a grievance when it arises;
  • make it clear when you will and won’t intervene in employee disputes;
  • consider using the skills of a trained external mediator to help resolve any major disputes.

Further Advice

Our HR Advice Line is on hand to support employers on a range of employment issues. Please contact an adviser on 0845 073 0240 if you would like assistance on this or any other employment matter.

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