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The Three Pillars of Conflict Resilience

Figures are often bandied around regarding the cost to business of workplace conflict. In the UK, the CBI put a figure on it of £33 billion. For the US, CPP found that employees spent on average 2.8 hours a week dealing with conflict, or approximately $359 billion in paid hours. These are frightening sums so it is not surprising that organisations, particularly larger ones, look for ways to minimise the impact of workplace conflict – or make the company more ‘conflict resilient’.


Organisations risk taking a ‘sticking plaster’ approach by introducing quick fix solutions such as bolstering up grievance / disciplinary processes, training up some staff as mediators, buying in an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) support package. Whilst these individually are all worthwhile, to be truly conflict resilient I would argue they are all necessary parts of an overall strategic approach to managing conflict. I like to think of this as the ‘Three Pillars of Conflict Resilience’

  • The Central Pillar – clear and robust PROCESSES, both formal and informal.

  • The Left Pillar – SUPPORT mechanisms for employees.

  • The Right Pillar – development of SKILLS to the right degree and for the appropriate people.

PROCESS

Most companies will have formal policies and procedures for dealing with employee disputes. In the UK the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures proposes that these ‘should be set down in writing, be specific and clear.’ So it would be unusual not to find some form of formal process but it would be far less common to see an informal process mapped out in the same way. A formal grievance / disciplinary route may be well suited to dealing for instance with a clear and evidenced case of bullying but how appropriate is it in dealing with two people whose working relationship has broken down? The nature of formal processes is adversarial and as such can lead to a worsening of conflict as both parties build their evidence against the other. Informal processes such as mediation and conflict coaching can encourage participants to work collaboratively to resolve their differences which is often more effective than formal processes in resolving workplace relationship issues. The central pillar for a Conflict Resilient Organisation is therefore to have both formal and informal processes backed up by competent managers and HR professionals. That brings us onto the next pillar…

SUPPORT

An employee caught up in a workplace conflict is likely to be significantly impacted in terms of engagement with work and colleagues, performance and often health. Good organisations know that offering support to employees is not only morally right but builds engagement and increases productivity. Unions used to play a major role in supporting employees though their power and reach has significantly decreased in recent years. Nevertheless, where they exist they can often be a great source of advice and support for employees who are struggling with a conflict. Employee Assistance Programmes are becoming increasingly used, providing a confidential helpline that employees can turn to for referral, counselling etc. and often not just for the employee but their family as well. EAPs used to be the preserve of large organisations but schemes now exist that offer the service to even the smallest companies. A benefit that is still predominantly offered by larger companies is an Occupational Health Service. This is a valuable support to both staff and the employer, giving treatment and advice to employees but also guiding the employer on staff fitness for work.

SKILLS

The third pillar is often the most neglected and yet, if applied properly, could have the most impact on reducing the time and effort spent on managing conflict. The truly conflict resilient organisation will invest in Skills Development. Ideally this should be at 3 levels:

  • ‘Difficult Conversations’ training for all employees

The most effective way to deal with conflict is to minimise how often it occurs. To do this employees should be encouraged and trained to resolve issues themselves. It takes courage to address an issue with a colleague so training gives employees a helpful framework to use but will also engender a culture of resolution amongst all staff.

  • ‘Basic Conflict Competence’ training for Line Managers

If employees are not able to sort out the issue themselves, the next port of call is the Line Manager. He / she is ideally placed to ‘nip it in the bud’ and avoid the conflict escalating. However, managers too often fail to identify the signs of conflict or if they do, steer clear of addressing it. Even when they do take some action, if they haven’t had training they can make a situation worse. As such, a key plank of conflict resilience is to train Line Managers so they have the confidence and competence to address conflict effectively.

  • ‘Conflict Resolution Skills’ training for HR Professionals (or others)

Where the manager has not been able to help resolve the issue it is important to have staff with more specialist mediation type skills. Often these reside in the HR department but this need not be the case. Key competences are advanced skills in active listening, questioning technique, impartiality and effective communication etc. so find people in the organisation who are already proficient and who could be further trained and given tools and frameworks to assist them. Part of the training would also be the ability to recognise when external specialist help from professional mediators is needed.


So how does your organisation look in terms of the Three Pillars of Conflict Resilience? My guess is that you’ve got formal procedures but possibly not informal ones. You may well have an EAP and even Occupational Health support. But how much training is done to help you develop skills in dealing with conflict – I suspect not enough!

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