Whether you run a large or a small business, conflict between two (or more) employees becomes a headache you could do without; it impacts on the rest of the team and may result in a drop in activities, potential sickness absence or a formal grievance.
So, what can you do to manage conflict at work?
Firstly, you cannot aspire to make the conflict disappear without understanding what it’s about. It is important to define clearly each of the parties’ position and interests in the conflict and get to the bottom of it by asking questions of each person:
- What are their interests?
- What do they really care about in this conflict?
- What do they want?
- What do they need?
- What are their concerns, hopes and fears?
Secondly, it is always useful to put the ball back in their court and ask them to reflect on what kind of agreement they may want to reach. And then, switch it round by asking them to put themselves into the shoes of the other party:
- If they were in the other party’s shoes, what would they really care about in this conflict?
- What would the other party want, need, hope, etc.?
The aim is to stop the individuals trying to bargain over their position, to which they are no doubt firmly attached. They cannot ‘lose face’ by abandoning their stance, or be seen to compromise if the other side isn’t.
The idea is to bring both parties into the same room if possible. Ground rules are vital, namely that only one party can speak at any one time and the other listens (they can take notes if they wish to revisit something that has been said). Emotions can run high but it’s ok to acknowledge these rather than ignore them (don’t join in though!). Breaks can be taken throughout the meeting at any time.
Assigning the task of facilitating such a meeting is also key. Both parties must feel any agreement reached is a fair one for both sides and will have expectations that the Facilitator is impartial. You may want to consider bringing in an independent person. In some cases, it may be more successful to first shuttle between both aggrieved parties until you know it will be meaningful to bring them together and brainstorm solutions.
Having heard each person speak, you will hopefully see some common interests (e.g. want respect, want more autonomy, want more recognition, better communication, etc.). When both parties come together, the meeting will need structure, such as a clear purpose statement, an agenda and some ground rules:
- Come up with as many ideas as possible to resolve the conflict
- No judgement or criticism of the ideas so they keep flowing
- Outline win-win solutions or compromises so that both parties get something they want
- Use a flipchart or a whiteboard to capture common grounds or ask each person to write their ideas themselves
- They can agree together on which resolution is best/which to start implementing first so both get the best result for themselves
With the best will in the world, it would be naïve to assume that all workplace mediation is going to be successful and everyone will work together happily ever after! So, before you bring the two parties face-to-face, it may be useful to understand from them what alternatives they would be willing to consider. Get them to write down pros and cons for each alternative so you can identify which is best for each person. Are these alternatives realistic and practicable? How can they be improved so both parties benefit in equal measure?
Conflict resolutions also applies to teams, not just individuals, but we would recommend that any one group has no more than 5-6 people (12 in the same room is plenty to manage and you might need an ‘assistant’ to help out).
I appreciate this may sound time consuming when you would rather just ‘knock heads together’ but it will be worth the time spent, especially if it involves groups. Getting them back in a productive work mode has to be your priority.
The Adastra HR team can help with all types of employee mediation and conflict resolution to support employee management, as well as with HR Business Partner support. Look us up at www.adastrahr.co.uk.