Dealing with workplace conflict

HR is often the first port of call when it comes to workplace conflict resolution. So how can you avoid absorbing its negative effects and build skills that can help you elsewhere in your career?

In 2011, the Government announced a raft of employment law reforms – among them a requirement for all employment disputes to go to mediation before tribunal. While this is great news for organisations looking to avoid costly employment tribunals or long, drawn-out official grievance processes, it also looks like HR will have a more hands-on role on the front line of workplace disputes.

Workplace conflict can have a hugely negative impact on organisations. The CBI estimates that it costs UK business £33 billion per year, taking up 20% of leadership time and potentially losing up to 370 million working days. Further, the current economic climate means that many staff are facing redundancy, spouses or family members may have been laid off, and there may be changes to workers’ terms and conditions – all of which increase the potential for grievances to be raised.

Personal impact of conflict

But what about the personal impact of conflict on HR? The prospect of dealing with disputes – from a small dispute between two colleagues to an organisation-wide industrial relations issue – could become a drain on your emotional resources. But by being aware of how you react in conflict situations, and developing the capability to stand back and be objective, it is possible to avoid absorbing the negative emotions involved and not burn out.

Angela O’Connor, CEO of HR consultancy The HR Lounge, believes that she used to spend too much time getting emotionally involved in conflicts when she started out. “I thought it was part of the job,” she says. “It even got to the stage where I thought about changing careers. Some of the best advice I was ever given was to see and not feel the situation.” O’Connor also learnt to push back some of the responsibility for resolving conflict back onto the individuals involved. “You can’t do your job properly if you’re dealing with every little bicker,” she says.

David Liddle, chief executive officer of The TCM Group, takes this advice one step further. “HR should enable, rather than just observe,” he says. “They need to help the parties find a way to have a collaborative dialogue.” His company runs a one-day course entitled HR as mediator and peacemaker, which coaches HR professionals in ways they can approach conflict more constructively.

Conflict a healthy element

Before the conflict even gets to this stage, however, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s a healthy element of any dynamic organisation – it means that staff have passion and care about what they do. One of the first things you can do when you act as a mediator, advises Liddle, is to know yourself. Be aware of your own responses and reactions – how you react when someone has been treated unfairly. “We often take our own experiences of conflict as baggage, and this defines how we respond,” he says.

Building your emotional resilience will help you deal with conflict in a way that won’t have you taking the problems home with you every night, says Jackie Keddy, one of the authors of Managing Conflict at Work.

Her personal experiences working in social services and the Metropolitan Police Service helped her to formulate techniques that HR professionals and line managers can use in conflict scenarios. She believes that dealing with the conflict “as the first bubbles begin to appear” will dilute its impact and make it easier to reach a resolution. “In the Met we used to call it the ‘golden hour’ – those crucial first few moments of an investigation. In a workplace conflict situation, it’s the same. If you can make an intervention early on, in an unbiased way, that can be very powerful. Unfortunately, what often happens is that the situation gets left, and this is when relations can break down.”

Another option, Keddy suggests, is to host “action learning groups”, where staff can come together and outline issues that are troubling them without being interrupted. Every person in the group gets a chance to speak and have their questions answered, and there should also be time for informal discussion. Again, this reflects the responsibility for resolving the conflict back onto those involved, making it easier for you as an HR professional to retain an objective distance.

Professional mediators

In serious disputes, it can pay to call in a professional mediator rather than try to meet the conflict head-on as an individual or department. These companies offer a range of services, from training HR and line managers to deal with potentially toxic situations to hosting mediation days where parties can air their side of the story, plus aftercare services for those in the middle of the conflict so they can discuss any changes to their situation.

These mediation forums will often be an opportunity to let out a great deal of anger or acknowledge needs that have not been met, says Liddle. “It shows people it’s OK to be human, lets the parties show their emotions. Then you can talk about how you move forward,” he says. When you’re in HR and on the front line of the situation, he adds, it can be tempting to be drawn into one side or the other, and this can increase the potential to become emotionally involved and therefore affected personally by the issue.

Positive effect on career

Becoming skilled at dealing with conflict, however, can have a positive effect on your career. “Being a skilled mediator can be invaluable in all areas of HR activity, whether you’re supporting managers, securing negotiations or dealing with mergers,” says Liddle. “It can help you to feel empathy, and I believe being able to see someone else’s point of view can be a major ‘unlocker’ for economic growth.”

Jackie Keddy agrees. “Personally, learning to deal with conflict has really helped me. It has really boosted my confidence, particularly in organisations where there is a strong male, hierarchical culture,” she says. “If you learn to be objective, you can come at things from a different perspective, and your whole response is a lot more business-like.”

Finally, know which battles you want to fight, advises Sharon Benson, HR director at law firm Keoghs, because you won’t be able to win them all. One strategy that she employs is to ask those involved to paint a picture of where they want to be, what they want to achieve, and then talk about how you can help them to get there. “Start with the end in mind,” she concludes, advice that will prove effective in all aspects of your career.

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