Nipping conflict in the bud
Picture the scene. You manage a team in a call centre. An employee has stolen a computer game from a colleague’s car and held his keys to ransom. Others are changing the language on each other’s computers or disrupting the working day with excessive noise. Someone defaces an ID card with a permanent marker. Some might be tempted to dismiss it as boisterousness or ‘banter’. But the atmosphere soon spirals out of control, someone ‘flips’ and an employee is attacked at his desk and kicked unconscious.
It might sound far-fetched, but the incident was all too real. It took place at an EE call centre in the North East, in 2013, and resulted in the dismissal of eight employees, including the manager concerned – though she later won a claim for unfair dismissal.
It’s an unnerving demonstration of how allowing gripes and disagreements to escalate can have a major impact on productivity, morale, and even the fabric of an employer’s culture. Conflict is not only human; it’s human nature to find a vicarious pleasure in others’ friction. Millions enjoyed the drama of Katie Hopkins (“He’s got more back fat than a blue whale”) and Perez Hilton (“You have defecated on my soul”) at loggerheads on Celebrity Big Brother. But transfer that sort of pantomime conflict to real life and it’s often the employer that’s left picking up the pieces.
According to a recent CIPD report, Getting under the skin of workplace conflict: Tracing the experiences of employees, to be published in March, one in three UK employees has reported either an isolated dispute or incident of conflict in the last year. The most common type of conflict was with line managers, followed by colleagues in a team and then direct reports. The single most prevalent cause was “clashes in personality or working styles”. And for 40% of employees surveyed, the conflict led to either an increase in stress or a dip in motivation.
To a certain extent, some element of conflict at work is unavoidable.
If you think about it, if you push a group of people together in an office, you’re selecting them as individuals rather than as a team says occupational psychologist Cary Cooper. So there will be personality conflict, competition for attention, opposition for promotion,” . There’s so much tied up in the political aspects of the conflict that they’re not doing their job.
This preoccupation can be disastrous for productivity. And if the disagreement ends up in a formal grievance process, this occupies large swathes of management time – and could even finish up with a legal claim going before a tribunal.
Changes to public policy and legislation around dealing with workplace grievances, such as the recent introduction of tribunal fees, a focus on early conciliation and changes to settlement agreements, mean there is more onus than ever on employers to nip conflict in the bud. “We believe far more effort is now being made by employers to head off problems at the ranch; training managers to do a better job of dealing with conflict, boosting mediation skills,” says Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the CIPD.
In small or family businesses, the effects can be devastating. If a disagreement escalates in a workplace just four- or five-strong, it can cripple the operation. “Even something small can affect a whole business if there are only a few employees, says Beverley East, operations director for the Federation of Small Businesses.
What are the flashpoints for such devastating disagreements? “Often it’s just a misunderstanding; people aren’t communicating effectively, they’re relying on email instead of talking face to face,” says Alex Efthymiades, a director at mediation consultancy Consensio. “People might misinterpret what you write, or that someone is having a bad day when they’re just tired.”
Sue Binks, principal consultant at leadership institute Roffey Park, says
Conflicts often begin with an individual becoming fixated on their own beliefs or expectations for a certain outcome. Their self-esteem is bound up in an external situation. It might even be linked to their past – a phrase, an element of body language that reminds them of a situation where they felt threatened, she says. When they bring this out into the open or things don’t go their way, the atmosphere can turn toxic.
Mark Withers, founder of Mightywaters Consulting said
This happened at a professional services firm where a group of senior partners had a “breakdown in relations”, “Two of the younger partners had been working together for eight years, they’d been promoted at the same time and were striving for supremacy. It built over time. They both thought they were right.” Only once things came to a head did they seek external support.
Withers believes this illustrates why it’s important to call out conflict as early as possible. “You have to look out for the early warning systems, particularly where there are senior people involved,” he says. In this case, Withers worked with the partners to reflect on their own personal working styles, consider each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how these contributed to the overall goals of the firm. “Before we could even sit down as a group, I held individual conversations with them to build trust. You have to do this before you can get to the nuts and bolts of the problem.”
Language, and the body language that accompanies it, is at the root of many misunderstandings. It’s a topic Deborah Tannen has devoted her career to unravelling: as professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work, she rues the diminishing importance of face-to-face contact in the workplace.
Most of the conflicts I’ve encountered during my research came about because of one-way communication: an email, a voice message. If someone’s in front of you, you can gauge their reaction, see if you’re on the wrong track.
She argues there are many ways language can be misconstrued. “Language is often a medium through which we work things out, but also where issues are perpetrated. For example, people from different cultures have different ideas for how long a pause [in speech] should be, or whether it’s rude to interrupt. If you can get a handle on conversational dynamics, you’re making a step forward.”
Managers’ fear of dealing with conflict may be every bit as problematic. “People get promoted to positions because of their technical ability, not their people skills,” says Efthymiades. “They’re in positions of power but they haven’t been given the skills or the confidence to deal with awkward situations. They don’t know how to intervene appropriately, so they’d rather not.”
Mike Williams, HR director of Byron Hamburgers, encourages managers to take responsibility for their own department when it comes to dealing with conflict.
We tend to push the informal route early on. We push back to people and ask ‘Why did X do this?’ We coach managers to have that conversation and come to an informal resolution.” Others prefer even more direct interventions: an HR director in a manufacturing company explains that he takes new managers to employment tribunals, to show them the high-pressure environment they risk entering when they allow relatively benign situations to escalate. Better a difficult conversation now, he tells them, than a grilling from a well-remunerated barrister down the line.
In one case (in a previous role), Williams ran a mediation session for two colleagues whose clash had become so overwhelming that they were shouting at each other in the office. “We made it clear that if this continued they could both face disciplinary action, and this gave them the motivation to sort it out. We signed an agreement on how they would behave, and how they would approach the other person if the issues started again,” he says.
By getting those involved in the conflict to ‘own’ it rather than trying to apply a resolution, there is a much greater chance of success. “Don’t start writing scripts. Step back and understand what’s going on,” says Withers. “Create an environment where they can work through it, rather than either party worrying that discussing it will be career limiting.”
When dealing with clashes at work, timing is everything. Applying formal processes too early, for example, can be counter-productive. “If you over-apply HR processes, you can create an environment where the first port of call is to lodge a grievance,” adds Williams. “Then you spend all your time managing disputes formally, it’s very reactive and you can’t identify why situations get to that stage in the first place.”
Mediation, whether internal or bought in from a third party, can influence a positive outcome, but it has to be introduced without prejudice, says Lindsey Trueman, owner of the Let’s Talk consultancy says,
It will only work where there is a balance of power. Where it is used for one party to say ‘this is successful’ –or, if it doesn’t work, they then resort to the legal process – it becomes more like a formal sanction or a personal vendetta, It’s vital to keep in mind the blurred boundaries between clashes and outright bullying. People may have nefarious reasons for writing off serious situations as a minor fracas: in compiling his recent report on the parlous state of NHS whistleblowing, Robert Francis decried the frequency with which whistleblowers were portrayed as pursuing an interpersonal agenda against a manager or colleague when in fact they were raising serious safety concerns.
Ultimately, preventing conflict in the first place is the ideal – and while avoiding it altogether might be over-ambitious, it is possible to foster a culture where disagreements don’t derail the whole organisation. Ros Searle, professor of psychology and organisational behaviour at Coventry University, says,
It helps to understand the role of competition. Are you setting up conflict scenarios, for example around resources? Or are you encouraging people to co-operate to get the desired result?
One company gave employees disposable cameras and encouraged them to take pictures of parts of the workplace that mattered to them. There was an exhibition of the resulting photos, and when the business set up conflict management training, staff were more receptive, because they appreciated that team individuals had different personal priorities.
Jonny Gifford, CIPD research adviser, suggests that over time, the skills managers require to manage conflict will become integral to how they work:
As with coaching, I think we’ll begin to see mediation move from something formal that people buy in, to a skill embedded in management training, with managers adopting mediation behaviours to more informal situations.
Ultimately, says Binks, you want a workplace where healthy friction and occasional conflict are part of the creative or operational process, firing people up to greater heights rather than leaving them demoralised and distraught. Whether that would stop a Katie Hopkins type running amok, however, remains a moot point.
Look out for the CIPD report, Getting under the skin of workplace conflict: Tracing the experiences of employees, at www.cipd.co.uk/conflictresolution
Taken from article published in People Management Magazine on 19 February 2015 by Jo Faragher
Petaurum Solutions’ Comment
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