6 ways to resolve conflict between employees

By Portner Press on September 11th, 2019
  1. Performance Management
  2. Misconduct

Personality clashes, inconsistent working styles and interpersonal disputes can arise at any time in the workplace.

When such conflicts occur, it can drain resources, lead to underperforming teams, reduce productivity and lower staff morale.

Any unconstructive conflict, whether it is at an early stage or deeply entrenched, needs to be managed proactively and effectively. If it is left untreated, it can escalate and cause significant damage to your business and the employees involved.

Below we look at 6 methods you can use to resolve conflict in your workplace.

Each method may be useful at different times, depending on how much the conflict has escalated.

  1. Direction about behavioural standards

Address the conflict immediately if it:

  • has resulted in either party engaging in behaviour that is not consistent with your business’s standards or code of conduct; or
  • poses a risk to anyone’s health and safety.

Irrespective of how you decide to support your employees to resolve the larger conflict, you must manage that breach or risk promptly. Give the employee a clear, formal direction to cease the behaviour and document it.

Remember, while such a direction may appear to increase conflict in the short term, your business has a legal obligation to address unlawful or unsafe work conduct immediately.

  1. One-on-one chat

Given that conflict is often about opposing needs or interests, it may be resolved at an early stage through a one-on-one chat between each of the employees in conflict and a neutral party, e.g. a manager, with help from HR.

In the discussion, explore how each employee’s needs or interests can be met in a way that will de-escalate the conflict or reduce its impact.

  1. Coaching

If an employee has lost confidence in their ability to handle a conflict constructively, e.g. because they are anxious and unsure about how to go about it, you can upskill them through coaching. Coaching is like a more in-depth version of a one-on-one chat. During coaching:

  • talk with the employee about how to have difficult conversations, manage their emotion, listen effectively and negotiate;
  • encourage the employee to self-reflect about their own contribution to the problem; and
  • support the employee to continue to address the conflict themselves in a more effective way.

Coaching is best undertaken by someone who does not have a stake in the outcome, such as a manager in another team. This avoids anyone feeling like the coach has taken sides.

  1. Mediation

If the parties are not able to resolve their differences on their own, or a complaint has been made, but the parties are still willing to meet to discuss their differences, mediation or facilitated discussion can achieve satisfactory outcomes.

Mediation is a voluntary and strictly confidential discussion between the parties in dispute, with the mediator guiding the parties through the mediation process.

The goal of mediation is for the parties to resolve the dispute themselves, by making an informed decision that everyone can live with. A resolution will not be required or imposed on the parties.

Mediation involves sessions between the mediator and each individual employee, and sessions with everyone together. Often the mediator summarises the parties’ perspectives in a joint session, and sets out an agreed agenda on a whiteboard.

After further discussion comes the negotiation phase, in which the mediator encourages each party to explore options and to consider suggestions made by the other party. Mediation is bound by strict confidentiality. The mediator will negotiate with the parties and the employer about what information can be shared with the employer after mediation.

Remember that keeping any discussions had in mediation confidential is the key to retaining the trust and good faith of the parties, and fostering a willingness to explore solutions. This also means finding a quiet and discreet location where parties can meet unobserved by others.

  1. Facilitated discussion

If an employee is intimidated or discouraged by the formalities of mediation, a facilitated discussion can be useful. The greater informality and looser structure of a facilitated discussion —and the fact that it can be conducted by a colleague— make it more appealing.

A facilitated discussion is a meeting between the parties in dispute, facilitated by a neutral person. It is more fluid, less structured and less formal than mediation.

The facilitator might be an HR representative, a skilled manager from another area, or an external consultant with conflict-resolution skills.

Compared with mediation, a facilitated discussion allows the employer to have more flexibility, as they can have greater involvement in suggesting ideas to the parties and giving feedback on the feasibility of proposed resolution options.

In addition, the process is less confidential. While the participants are still required to keep the information shared at the facilitated discussion confidential from their colleagues, the facilitator may provide feedback to senior managers or HR at the conclusion of the discussion.

  1. Disciplinary action

If one-on-one chats, coaching, mediation or facilitated discussions do not resolve ongoing disputes between employees, it is likely that the disputing employees are engaging in poor performance, misconduct or both.

At this point, put the responsibility back on the employees to:

  • cease the behaviours that are affecting their own performance and the work performance of those around them; and
  • if necessary, cease any misconduct.

Be specific and clear about the behaviours that you are directing the employees to stop. Ensure that the behavioural standards are measurable and can be objectively observed, so that you will be able to judge confidently whether the employees are abiding by your direction.

Also consider whether any systemic or cultural factors have allowed the dispute to continue. For example, consider the following questions:

  • Do your business’s values and standards of conduct require training for all employees?
  • Are your workplace policies and procedures up-to-date, particularly in relation to professionalism in the workplace and adherence to company values?
  • Are roles and reporting lines clear?
  • Should leaders and managers be given an opportunity to reflect on their own role in building a constructive workplace culture?

After taking disciplinary action, you may again want to consider mediation or facilitated discussion.

The key goal here is to repair and rebuild relationships for the employees who must continue to work together.

Do you need further information on managing workplace conflict?

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