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Employee conflict in the ‘new normal’ – and how to deal with it

It's a situation that could be similar for many in the coming weeks. With the UK Prime Minister recently announcing the plan for a gradual easing of the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions there has been much debate on how workplaces will change. Employees will encounter physical workplace changes such as revised seating arrangements, new work rotas and enhanced hygiene arrangements. More significant than these in my view are the mental challenges brought about by the change to the ‘new normal’.

Employees are nervous about returning to work – CIPD research suggests 4 in 10 are anxious about the return. They are coming back to a difficult environment and whilst many will be glad to get back to something like a familiar routine, others could be overwhelmed by a host of concerns – their experiences during lockdown, worry about their personal safety, financial concerns, personal loss, job security and anxiety caused by the massive changes in society generally. Environments like this, riddled with change, uncertainty and fear, are fertile breeding grounds for employee conflict. The potential is rife for minor niggles between employees to fester and escalate into major disputes. This is especially the case if you bring together people who have had differing experiences – how for instance will people who have continued working, often at risk to their own safety, view colleagues who have been furloughed and not been at work?

So how do we avoid workplace tensions escalating and creating unnecessary conflict? Here are some top tips that help prevent conflict arising and when it does arise, help nip it in the bud before it becomes serious.

1. Be aware of own feelings and build resilience

Ask yourself how you are feeling at the moment. Be honest and recognise if you are not feeling great. If so then be aware that you are more at risk and avoid situations that could trigger you. And if you are triggered despite this, then remind yourself that you are not in the best state to deal with it and don’t react or respond until you have had a chance to reflect. You can also work on your resilience by avoiding negative self talk and doing things which help boost your state of mind such as physical exercise and mindfulness practice.

2. Don’t take it personally

When someone is negative towards you it can feel very personal and hurtful. Often their behaviour is the outcome of what is going on for them yet somehow you have become the focus of the negativity their personal situation has created. So try not to take it personally. This may be enough to help you let the negative feelings go but if not you will need to address the situation rather than let it eat away at you and cause stress.

3. Avoid making assumptions

Our natural inclination is to try to make sense of experiences we have. If something happens which seems strange or unexpected the brain will try to fill in the gaps, making assumptions to build a story of what is going on. But if you are in a negative frame of mind you might very quickly go down a path which uses wrong assumptions, and leads to uncomfortable conclusions and potential conflict. Don’t rely on assumptions but instead check them out by talking to the person who can then explain.

4. Communicate - listen and explore

When a relationship breaks down communication deteriorates and as communication worsens, so the relationship suffers even more - and so on until there is a major breakdown. So if you are struggling in a relationship with someone, difficult as it may feel, it is really important to speak with them about it. Approach the conversation with an open mind and explain to them briefly how you see things, using neutral, non blaming language; then listen to what they have to say. Explore options and solutions to improve the situation for both of you. It can feel really challenging to even attempt this kind of conversation but if it means you can stop the pain and suffering the bad relationship is causing you then it will be worth it.

5. Seek some help

You may find that you’ve done what you are supposed to do but it’s still not resolved. Don’t be hard on yourself, this can happen. You now need to take the next step which is to seek help. This will probably be your line manager in the first instance – unless it is your line manager who you have an issue with, in which case it might be HR or your manager’s manager. Whoever it is they might be able to facilitate a conversation between you and the other person themselves or engage the support of a trained mediator. By talking through the situation together, understanding where the issues are and exploring what you need from each other, you should be able to come to agreement on how you will work together going forward.

(This article is an abridged extract from Marc Reid’s chapter in the forthcoming book “Good Work Good Business - practical people strategies for a changing world” to be published later in 2020)


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