Conflict Management Skills

A Necessity not a Luxury in 21st Century Business!

By Joanne Hannah

The ability to manage conflict is not a skill that many people have naturally, and in many organisations, conflict management is not seen as a core competency for success at management or director level. Conflict, in itself is not a problem, as it can contribute to significant positive change within organisations, as different viewpoints can challenge the status quo, leading to innovation and improved ways of working: But with skill scarcity in managing this area, how can it be managed successfully within the workplace?

According to the 2007 CIPD Report, Managing Conflict at Work, behaviour/conduct was named as the biggest cause of conflict across all industry sectors (manufacturing and production, private sector, not for profit and public services). Consequently, behaviour/conduct complaints led to the highest number of employment tribunal cases, followed by cases dealing with issues of sex, race or disability discrimination and bullying and harassment. A further CIPD/OPP survey dated October 2008 went on to support the findings of the 2007 report, by citing warring egos and personality clashes, as the main reasons for conflict at work, accounting for 40% of grievances. In 2008/09 a total of 151,000 employment tribunal claims were lodged.

The 2008 CIPD report goes on to comment that only 30% of companies surveyed invest in either conflict management or mediation skills training, and interestingly, those who do invest, experience less tribunal claims. The pressure to manage conflict at work is often being left to company HR departments. Although many HR professionals are trained to manage conflict, it is not reasonable – or commercially intelligent – to expect the HR department to assume full responsibility for defusing conflict. As it encourages a culture where HR is seen as the middle-man between management and direct reports. This is unproductive as it creates greater tension and weakens team spirit, ultimately leading to lower productivity and potential client dissatisfaction. Additionally, it means that employees do not learn how to interact more effectively and become more responsible for their behaviour.

The most logical step is to provide employees, line managers and directors with the necessary skills to manage conflict.
Employees need to have an understanding of how to manage conflict, and to be aware of how their behaviour/conduct can contribute to its creation. Most companies build successful teams by pulling together people with different skillsets and different personalities, being able to deal with difference is an essential workplace skill. Conflict stems from not accepting difference. The more different an individual is from us, the more likely we will find them difficult to understand.

The Jones & Brinkert comprehensive conflict-coaching model states that there are 3 perspectives that contribute to how conflict emerges in our relationships at work. These perspectives are:

1. Identity – is about thinking that something or someone is stopping us from being who we are, or who we want to be. Or how our behaviour/conduct is portrayed as damaging the identity of another.

2. Emotion – is a word that many people dislike, especially in the workplace, as it is seen as being too touchy feely or a private/personal matter. However, everyone experiences emotions, they are quite literally an “Energy in Motion”! They are also at the core of conflict, and are our measure of how important something is to us. Emotions motivate and act as signposts to reasons why we, and others, act in a particular way.

3. Power – is all about influence, and how we use it to achieve what we need from a situation. Once the other perspectives are understood, the ability to influence is greatly improved.

So what are the options when companies want to reduce conflict?

Be strategic; do not wait until you are facing a crisis. Prevent conflict before it starts: intervene in small problems before they grow in to larger and more costly issues. According to the Mediation Training International Institute:
“80% of workplace conflicts that reach the formal dispute resolution system could have been resolved early, quickly, and inexpensively . . . if the employees directly involved had known how.”

Conflict management should become a core competency for senior managers, thereby providing a performance indicator measuring how effectively an individual manages conflict. Once conflict management becomes part of a performance framework, it is more likely to become an acceptable part of an employee’s job role, and as a result, conflict is less likely to derail organisational performance.

Introduce conflict management or mediation skills training in to the company’s training programme. Alternatively, depending on an employees learning style, and/or preference, offer conflict coaching as a one-to–one learning intervention, to support employees that learn more effectively through a coaching partnership.
According to the 2008 Survey, the top three benefits of managing conflict effectively are:

1. A reduction in the number of formal disciplinary and grievance cases
2. Improvement in Team Morale
3. Improvement in Team Performance/Productivity

Finally, ignoring, or devaluing the impact of conflict, should not be an option. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great – Why Some Companies Make the Leap … And Others Don’t (year of publication) notes: “The builders of great companies are clock builders, not time tellers. They understand that in order to build a truly great company, they must concentrate primarily on building the organization.”

As we know, people are at the foundation of any organisation: people are relational, and the healthier the relationships at work, the healthier the organisation.
To discuss strategies for skilling up your staff, get in contact.

joanne hannahJoanne Hannah is lead coach of Changequest Coaching, a relationship and conflict coaching company based on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.

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