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Five steps to handling conflict in the workplace

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Successfully managing disagreements is an inevitable part of growing a business so it should be a priority for any manager. If you believe there is a problem in your workplace, the below steps are a useful way of resolving conflict that could potentially be harmful to the culture of your business.

Step 1: Acknowledge that there is tension or conflict that needs addressing rather than let it fester any longer. As people, it’s natural for us to avoid and downplay conflict because dealing with it is hard, takes effort and honesty, and often brings things out that can make the situation more uncomfortable before it improves. So your first step is to take ownership of the problem.

Step 2: What is it actually that you want to achieve from putting yours and others’ time and energy (and organisational investment), into dealing with the conflict? That is, are you looking to address the underlying issues at the very heart of the conflict, or can you see other ways that the situation could be brought to some sort of closure – like moving someone to another department, reaching a compromise agreement, or conducting an investigation to tick a particular policy box? Your answer to this question fundamentally affects what you do and how the conflict may or may not be resolved. In our experience, if you can get to the root of the issue, it always yields the most positive, and cost effective, result for the business and individuals concerned.

Step 3: Addressing conflict early is always the best approach before it escalates to a point where it becomes increasingly costly to resolve. For example, reaching Employment Tribunal is a situation where nobody really wins. Your aim is to nip the conflict in the bud as soon as it is picked up.

Step 4: Try not to jump to solution mode before you’ve assessed some key factors. It’s important to fully understand first why the conflict occurred, and its seriousness. With groups, it could be helpful to roughly visualise the conflict on paper – representing the many lines of interaction and what each relationship is like, what incidents have occurred between people, so where the hot spots are.

Step 5: Finally, it’s important to accept that some kinds of conflict are easier to resolve than others. A spat in a meeting can be diffused relatively quickly, but resolving the issues bubbling underneath could be a lengthier road. But it’s certainly possible, if there has been a commitment (Step 1) to support individuals during what can be a tough period of dealing with negative emotions, of self-reflection and changing their own behaviour.

We often put off addressing conflict in the workplace for fear of uncomfortable confrontation and making a problem worse. But if managed effectively, addressing the issues in a calm and impartial way will lead to a significant improvement in staff morale, the working atmosphere and ultimately, business performance.

John Crawley, general manager at People Resolutions, has been mediating disputes since 1987.

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