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The Manager's Guide to Mediating Conflict

By Alison J Love
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About this book
Publication date:
September 2014
Publisher
Packt
Pages
78
ISBN
9781783000661

 

Chapter 1. Conflict in the Workplace

 

"The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth"

 
 --—Niels Bohr, Danish physicist

An understanding of the key principles of conflict and the impact it has on individuals will help you to understand why mediation can be so effective. Understanding the foundational ideas upon which the concept of mediation is built will give you a greater sense of the skills needed to mediate and facilitate workplace disputes. By acknowledging some of the causes of conflict in a contemporary office environment, you will gain a stronger understanding of exactly when and how you should take action.

 

Redefining conflict


At its core, conflict is very simply a different point of view; the differences being due to our varied experiences, views of the world, and cultures or values. All of these elements give us different perspectives and influence how we see things.

Conflict is not about who is right or who is wrong. It is about the different way that we see and interpret things. Individuals often get stuck in conflict situations because they get caught up in questions around truth, intentions, and blame. In terms of resolving conflict, then, who is right and wrong isn't important; what is fundamental is understanding and accepting differing perspectives. Your role as a mediator is to facilitate the parties in achieving this; it is about helping the parties to better understand each other sufficiently rather than getting the parties to agree with each other.

In the vast majority of the mediations that I have been involved in, the specific facts and issues of a dispute often fall away very quickly and become irrelevant. What's left are differing perspectives and hurt feelings fuelled by misunderstanding, miscommunication, distrust, and speculation over the intentions of others. As a mediator, you need to tackle all of these things and not be afraid to do so. Resolution can only come from the emotional aspects of disputes being aired and understood.

Helping parties to shift their focus away from establishing who is right and who is wrong towards acknowledging the impact of the conflict on each other and understanding each other's perspective is a key principle in resolving conflict. This can range from giving the individuals themselves the support and skills to resolve conflict positively to interventions from others, including informal action by you as the line manager or by adopting the role of a mediator.

 

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.

 

Good versus bad conflict


Bringing different perspectives and different points of view together should be a positive thing, and it should help promote creativity and innovation. So while we tend to think of conflict in negative terms, it can be a force for good. If conflict is managed positively or the culture is such that it promotes a healthy exchange of viewpoints, this promotes understanding and allows individuals to express opinions in a constructive way that achieves collaboration and engagement; all of which is positive. Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, lists the fear of conflict as one of the five dysfunctions of a team and that teams who develop the ability to engage in healthy conflict and open debate will move towards high performance. Indeed it could be argued that a fear of conflict and reluctance to challenge may well have contributed to some of the dramatic corporate scandals of recent history, such as Enron, Goldman Sachs, and HBOS.

Lencioni suggests that teams that fear conflict will tend to have boring meetings, engage in personal attacks and power politics, ignore controversial topics, fail to tap into all opinions, and waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management. I am sure we can all relate to this and have witnessed this to varying degrees. A team that engages in conflict positively will in contrast have lively and interesting meetings, exploit ideas from all, solve problems quickly, minimize politics, and put critical topics on the table for discussion (rather than avoid them).

A manager's style of leadership will have a big influence on whether a team can engage in healthy conflict. If a manager leads by example, they themselves encourage open debate and manage conflict in a positive way; this will influence others to do likewise. Also, in a team or culture where there is healthy conflict, the individuals will be empowered to take responsibility to resolve issues between themselves. Lencioni suggests that team members should have the confidence to identify buried disagreements and encourage the team to resolve them. Understanding others' typical responses to conflict can also help here. Ideally the manager should not be called on or be required to intervene in every issue; if the parties can resolve matters themselves then they should be given the opportunity to do so. It is only where this is not possible or successful that the manager will need to take action. The trick is of course to identify when this is necessary. To put yourself into a position where you can spot when this is required, it is necessary to take the time and effort to really know and understand those who work with you and be alert to differences in behaviors, communications, relationships, and engagement.

Problems arise when the culture does not encourage healthy conflict, conflict is not managed positively, or it remains unresolved for long periods of time. In these situations conflict becomes damaging; in turn, this creates a relational crisis that destabilizes people. As a result, people act and react in ways that produce unproductive and destructive dynamics.

Unfortunately, conflict remains unresolved or is simply avoided in far too many situations; it is estimated that 60 percent of line managers tend to avoid conflict rather than seek to tackle and resolve it (CIPD Leadership and Management of Conflict Survey 2008). As we all know from our own personal experiences, ignoring or avoiding conflict does not produce a positive result; rather, it worsens the situation. Resentments fester, communication diminishes, and individuals begin to get stuck in the conflict situation so that the need for some third-party intervention (such as mediation) increases.

Conflict, then, can be both productive and harmful. Some of the ways in which conflict can have a positive effect are as follows:

  • Innovation: A workplace where people are able to discuss, argue, and take different positions is essential if you are looking to cultivate a work environment where new ideas are encouraged and even required.

  • Creativity: Similarly, creativity is something that is developed through interaction and, indeed, friendly conflict with others. To think creatively, you sometimes need a sounding board, even if it is a dissenting voice!

  • Engagement: Conflict, in its proper place, actually correlates with the engagement of employees. Indeed, good conflict is a symptom rather than a cause of engagement, but it indicates that employees feel empowered and committed enough to their roles to feel passionately about and stimulated by their tasks.

  • Personal development: Good conflict is also an essential part of one's personal development. While the phrase "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" may or may not be true, in this case, good conflict is intrinsic to personal development in the sense that it is indicative of the fact that you are offering a fresh perspective, that you are actively contributing to something, or having an effect on the way things are done.

Of course, there is always another side to this, and often it is the inverse that leads to bad conflict. So, bad conflict could be the result of a lack of innovation in a workplace. If there is no sense of progression, or a desire to improve, this will lead to frustration and even stress, which, in turn, leads to bad conflict. One might consider conflict as being buried within any situation; think for example, of a good friendship—the best friendships often feature some kind of antagonism or conflict which make them interesting and stimulating. The problem happens when this conflict or what might be called productive antagonism becomes stifled. It's then redirected, producing frustration, irritation, and as I will now explore, stress.

 

The impact of stress


As indicated in the preceding section, stress caused by such things as organizational change or increasing workloads can in itself contribute to conflict arising. In addition, where individuals are in conflict, one or usually both parties will almost always be in a state of stress so the situation will worsen. Understanding how stress impacts individuals and how this impacts the ability to deal with conflict situations is important to understand. I now look back on disputes that I was involved in litigating and appreciate why parties acted in the way that they did. Had I understood this at the time, I am sure that this would have helped me advise people better and influence the way that matters were handled.

Essentially, stress makes us stupid. The neurological impact of stress is that blood in our brains moves from the frontal area which is the logical thinking part of our brains to the subcortical area, which is the emotional part where the flight or fight response modes are activated.

This means that the logical thinking parts of our brain are blocked by the instinctive flight or fight response modes. The following are some of the consequences of this:

  • Our ability to focus is weakened

  • Our minds keep being dragged back to the object of tension (such as the conflict)

  • We do not listen properly and communication suffers

  • We react in inappropriate ways, for example by responding aggressively or withdrawing

  • We see ill motive and a conspiracy theory in everything that is said or done

  • We jump to conclusions too quickly and respond too violently to events that in the bigger scheme of things seem totally unimportant

  • We are not able to relate to others as effectively

It is important to appreciate that individuals will be reacting in these ways throughout a mediation process. In order to help them return to a position where they can listen and respond appropriately, it is first necessary to help individuals to get out of their state of stress. There are very simple exercises that you can encourage others to do to relieve stress. For example, concentrating on breathing deeply is highly effective; an excellent way to do this is to practice 7/11 breathing. This is where you breathe in for seven and breathe out for eleven. It is the ratio that is important so that you are breathing in for less time that you breathe out. Another technique is to improve your posture by imagining a balloon on a string from the top of your head. It may sound a bit odd but these two very simple exercises are highly effective. If in doubt, try it next time you feel stressed; I guarantee you will start to feel calmer.

Also as a mediator, you can help reduce stress by acknowledging the emotions of the parties, being empathetic and understanding, demonstrating real deep listening, giving individuals sufficient time, having patience, and establishing and maintaining calmness throughout. Remember that your mood as the mediator will affect the parties.

Whether you are in an active mediation process or simply managing the stresses and strains of your employees, dealing with stress effectively is essential, and the skills that you will use in a mediation scenario can be used every day to help your employees and colleagues.

 

How mediation differs from other conflict resolutions


Where there is a workplace dispute, there are a number of options that can be used to deal with it. These range from allowing parties to resolve it themselves through to litigation, as set out in the conflict resolution road map.

The differences between mediation and other options are shown in the following image:

With all options other than mediation, the focus will be on the party's rights and the outcome will depend on a decision from a third-party as to whose rights are preferred; the emotional aspect is completely ignored as it is irrelevant to the process. Particularly where there is an ongoing relationship, this will rarely result in a positive outcome. Individuals will become defensive, communication will either cease all together or be very guarded and the gap between them will widen. I have seen many grievance processes resulting in further damaging relations, making an already bad situation a million times worse.

Mediation, unlike other formal processes or litigation, addresses the underlying emotions and in practice it is important to do so and to avoid shying away from this. In mediation who is right and who is wrong is entirely irrelevant and it puts the power to resolve matters in the hands of the parties. In this way, mediation is far more likely to produce a positive result, either allowing employees to work together in a better way or enabling an exit on better terms. As Kenneth Cloke puts it brilliantly in his book Mediating Dangerously, "the purpose of the search for truth in conflict resolution is twofold; first, to help the parties achieve a substantially fair result; and second, to help them feel a result is fair, allowing the wounds to heal."

 

Deciding to use mediation


Although mediation is a far better option, in the vast majority of cases it will not always be appropriate. The following table illustrates when to consider using mediation and when it will not be appropriate.

In terms of timing, I would urge you to always consider using mediation at the earliest possible stage. If you believe a situation is likely to result in some kind of formal process then mediation should begin prior to that process. Not only does this increase the chances of the mediation being successful, it also reduces the time and cost expended. Many of the mediations I have conducted have followed a lengthy and painful formal process, which has exacerbated the situation and could have been avoided in its entirety.

Consider mediation

Mediation not appropriate

Prior to a formal disciplinary/grievance

For example:

  • Where performance issues are linked to allegations of poor management or supervision or difficulties with colleagues

  • Where employees are showing signs of stress due to relationship difficulties with others

  • Informal grievances or complaints related to poor working relationships or management style

No agreement of the parties

(Conflict coaching or other support to help employees manage and resolve the conflict can be an alternative here.)

Unresolved/inconclusive grievances

For example:

  • The grievance has done nothing to improve working relations or has made matters worse

  • No findings have been possible due to conflicts of evidence and unsubstantiated allegations

  • One party has been absent for a period of time and is now returning to work following a grievance or disciplinary

Some gross misconduct offences

For example:

  • Those involving dishonesty or serious offences which may also amount to a criminal offence or where there are serious health and safety

Implementation of major changes/re-organizations

For example:

  • Where employees consider that changes are being implemented unfairly on them

  • Employees are struggling to cope with changes and are resistant

Where there is a need for a message, for example, serious discrimination/harassment

For example:

  • Where the employer wants to send a message to the workforce generally that certain misconduct will not be tolerated

Collective/industrial relations disputes

For example:

  • Where other dispute resolution mechanisms have failed to resolve disputes with trade unions

  • Where a team has become dysfunctional due to the breakdown of relationships between team members

Where the mental health of a party is a concern

For example:

  • Where there is doubt regarding an individual's ability to properly participate and make rational decisions

On-going difficulties in working relationships

For example:

  • Where employees need to co-operate and work together but are struggling to do so and there is an impact on them and/or those around them

  • Where there has been a breakdown of trust and confidence

 

Boardroom disputes

For example:

  • Where senior executives are in conflict, unable to communicate effectively and there is an impact on the collective decision making at senior level

 

Ideally I would suggest that mediation be considered as a first option in the vast majority of cases, with formal procedures being the exception to the rule. In order to encourage parties to enter into mediation in preference to formal processes, you may need to work at explaining what mediation is and highlight the benefits. It is also helpful to have mediation written into policies as a first step. You might think that as a mediator I would say that, wouldn't you!

 

Conflict road map


Mediation is part of a bigger picture of conflict resolution. It is always useful to have this in mind to gain some sense of perspective and context as to how mediation fits into the larger process of resolving conflict, as this will enable you to gain a greater handle on the conflict and where you are trying to get to with the mediation. The following figure represents a road map of conflict resolution. This should enable you to successfully manage any conflict situation in a way that is appropriate and effective.

 

Summary


You should now have a better understanding of how and why a conflict arises in workplace situations and also the impact that this has on individuals and relationships. This should give you an appreciation of why mediation can be so effective in resolving conflicts. This in itself gives you a head start in becoming an effective mediator. Finally, you should now be able to identify and spot those situations where conflict may arise and when to take action.

The next chapter builds on this by looking at the specific skills required to be an effective mediator.

About the Author
  • Alison J Love

    Alison Love has over 30 years of practical experience as an HR practitioner, employment lawyer, and a business leader. Prior to qualifying as a solicitor, she spent 8 years as an HR practitioner in the public, retail, and consumer finance sectors. This, combined with her skills and experience as a workplace mediator, has given Alison a unique understanding of the dynamics of workplace issues and an ability to successfully facilitate parties in identifying solutions. Having witnessed the limitations of the legal process and the benefits and power of mediation, Alison has firsthand experience of demonstrating that workplace mediation provides a better way to resolve conflict in the workplace in the vast majority of cases. Alison is passionate about sharing her knowledge and making mediation the first choice in resolving workplace disputes. Alison currently runs her own business (Alison Love Limited) which provides workplace mediation and dispute resolution services, including mediation, associated training, and executive coaching. Alison lives in Wales with her husband, two sons, and Jaffa the dog, where she can often be found walking Jaffa or pursuing her interest in photography. Alison also enjoys travelling, live music, and the occasional mad cycling challenge.

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