Conflicts in the workplace are bound to pop up from time to time.
Sometimes, employees may channel their frustrations in the wrong way. Or maybe they're unable to deal with changes to their working conditions.
Whatever the situation is, employers need to have a robust conflict management process in place. This will help deal with the problem whilst maintaining professional relations. Without it, you risk losing talented employees and facing major business damage.
In this guide, we'll look at what conflict management is, different styles used, and how to resolve disputes in the best way.
What is conflict management?
Conflict management is a strategy used to identify and handle disagreements between two parties.
Employers can use conflict management to resolve minor disputes, as well as more important issues. A properly managed conflict can minimise the negative consequences that surround disputes at work.
Every workplace conflict needs to be resolved in the right manner. That's why it's important for employers to have a good understanding on how to manage and reduce conflict at work.
Why is conflict management important?
It's so important to have a conflict management process in place – for employers, their staff, and the overall business.
It's also important to handle conflicts in the proper manner. If you ignore this, employees will feel undervalued, disrespected, and may decide to leave. Other times, they may decide to raise their claim to employment tribunals.
The word 'dispute' might seem like a negative thing. But they help highlight things you might have missed. Whilst raising them, you can be sure to eliminate the problems quickly and efficiently - allowing you to get on with growing your business successfully.
What causes conflict in the workplace?
There are many causes of conflict at work; including both minor or serious disagreements.
They usually arise when employees don't know how to deal with a situation at work. Some may handle it well; whilst others may respond in an unproductive or unhelpful manner.
When a work conflict arises, it can come from:
- Forcing personal values (real or perceived).
- Poor work environments.
- Unhealthy power dynamics.
- Bad communication channels.
- Misconduct (like discrimination or harassment).
- Breaches to work conditions or contract terms.
If employers don't resolve conflicts properly, they could face detrimental consequences for their business. Like low staff morale, decreased productivity, and high turnover.
Are there different conflict management styles?
Yes, there are different conflict management styles that employers can utilise.
These will generally fall into two divisions: assertion or cooperation. From here, you can use various conflict management styles. Let's take a look at a few:
One common method many employers use is an accommodating conflict management style.
People often think it's about making more effort to please other employees - but that's not the case. This conflict resolution style is about letting go of your own needs to keep the peace. It's a highly cooperative style, and is low in assertiveness.
Accommodation is useful for work conflicts that are small or need to be resolved quickly. But it's not always suitable when it comes to major conflicts that require an assertive approach.
For example, you've booked too many waiting staff for an event. Some of the workers are worried about being losing a day's salary. You decide to be accommodating to their needs and keep them all - it’s probably better to be slightly overstaffed than under.
Another conflict management style that some businesses use is avoiding.
This conflict resolution style is when you bypass or avoid conflict, rather than deal with it directly. It's low in being both assertive and cooperative
Avoidance can be useful when the risk of confronting a conflict is higher than the benefits of resolving it. But, it can make the other party feel undervalued or disrespected. And when you put off a conflict indefinitely, it only leads to 'lose-lose' situations for everyone.
For example, an employee states they couldn't finish a task because a colleague hasn't given them relevant paperwork. The line-manager makes a note of the delay. They ask them to ignore the task for now and start working on a new one.
A collaborating conflict management style is a highly popular method used by employers.
This conflict resolution style is about helping both parties reach a respectful and mutual resolution. It's particularly high in a cooperative approach.
Collaboration works best when you have sufficient time to resolve a conflict. It also works well when both parties are at a similar status or level. If they aren't, this conflict management style usually ends up being more beneficial for the superior party.
For example, two employees from different departments raise concerns about poor communication between them. Their employer doesn't seek to blame either one. Instead, they ask teams to focus on practising good communication skills for now on.
A competing conflict management style is seen as the opposite of accommodating.
This conflict resolution style 'forces' your own needs over the other party involved. It's highly assertive and relatively low in cooperation.
A competing style can help resolve conflicts quickly, especially if one party is more superior. But, if they're pushing an unpopular decision or a different solution, it can lead to discontent. Some employees may even raise this through an appeals claim.
For example, an employee raises a claim about unsafe working conditions. The employer asks the supervisor for a report, but they reassure them that it's a 'one-off' incident. The employer then forces the supervisor to initiate health and safety risk assessments.
A compromising conflict management style is probably the most common method used by employers.
Compromising helps reach a resolution that's suitable for all parties involved. It presents a moderate level of assertiveness and cooperation.
This conflict resolution style works well with conflicts that are particularly time-consuming. It can lead to less creative solutions simply because you're going at your own pace. But a lot of the time, both you and other parties gain 'win-win' solutions.
For example, several part-time employees express they want to receive overtime pay. The employer thinks about the costs and legal obligations that'll need to be followed. In the end, they come to a compromise and start an initial overtime trial.
What is the law on conflict management?
Under UK employment law, there’s no specific legal obligation on having conflict management processes in place. However, there are certain regulations that all employers need to follow.
ACAS's Code of Practice and Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures provides guidelines on managing conflicts and disputes at work. It outlines what appropriate levels of behaviour are; as well as what procedures need to be followed to deal with them.
The Code of Practice outlines guidelines on things like:
- Raising a conflict or dispute.
- Dealing with repeat offences.
- Carrying out an investigation into the matter.
- Informing the accused employee/parties about the issue.
- Holding a conflict or dispute resolution meeting.
- Allowing the employee/parties to appeal final decisions.
It's not a legal requirement to follow the Code, but every employer must have a fair procedure in place. Under the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA), if fair procedures aren’t followed, you could be liable for negligence by an employment tribunal (ET).
That's why it's beneficial for employers to adhere to the guidelines. By doing so, you'll be able to minimise disputes whilst maintaining employee morale and motivation.
What are employee rights during conflict management?
All employees should be allowed to raise a conflict or dispute that they've encountered at work. They should be able to do this without facing any form of discrimination or victimisation for their actions.
When conflicts aren't managed properly, employees may decide to leave their job. When they feel like they have no other choice but to quit, it could class as constructive dismissal.
If these sorts of claims are upheld, you could be forced to pay compensation and legal fees from both parties involved. Along with financial fines, employers can even face further business damages to their reputation.
Choosing the right conflict management style
It's important for employers to think about which conflict management styles will work best for certain disputes.
These will change depending on what's needed to resolve individual disputes. Like, a minor conflict can be managed using an avoidance or accommodating style. Whereas, a serious conflict might require collaborative conflict management skills.
To establish which conflict management styles to use, ask yourself:
- How serious is the dispute?
- Do you have the time and energy to address the situation right now?
- How important are your business needs?
- What happens if your needs aren't met sufficiently?
- How much do you value the other person/people involved?
- What happens if you use a different conflict management style?
Once you've answered these questions, you'll gain a better understanding of each conflict management style. You'll also figure out how the conflict happened and ways you can address it properly.
How to use conflict management in the workplace
Conflicts can happen between two employees; or between teams in other departments. That's why employers need to know how to address disputes whilst protecting professional relations.
Once you've picked a style, you need to know how to use conflict management in your workplace. Let's take a look at the steps you should follow:
Acknowledge the conflict
If an employee decides to raise a conflict with you, it's important to acknowledge it.
This is regardless of how minor or trivial it might seem. Remember, it might seem like a small matter to you, but it might not be the same to them. Quite often, when a problem is left unresolved, it tends to get worse over time.
Make sure your employees know how to raise a conflict properly. They can come directly to you or raise them through your grievance procedures. This could be a delicate time for them, so be a good listener and make them feel heard.
A confident and rational approach is the best way to be when dealing with work-related conflicts. Your staff will have more trust and respect in the process
Gather information for the investigation
The next step you need to take is gathering all necessary information related to the conflict.
Employers need to find out what exactly happened, who's involved, and what the issues are. Don't make prejudgments or 'second-guess' what happened to the other parties involved. Let each party speak and actively listen to their point of view.
All information that's gathered needs to be investigated. Remember, you can't resolve a conflict unless you've investigated all sides of the situation.
Sometimes, it might be hard to identify what the underlying cause of a conflict is. For example, an employee raises an unfair wages claim after discovering their co-workers are paid more for the same work. In this case, the root-cause lies with the manager, not the colleagues.
Decide how to handle the conflict
Once you've investigated the dispute, employers need to decide how to handle the conflict. Think about the following questions:
- Does the conflict count as a minor or serious issue?
- Are managing conflict styles suitable to use? Or do you need to use alternative dispute resolutions?
- Are you able to manage the conflict subjectively? Or should the process be led by another manager or your HR team?
- Does the conflict involve legal issues? Do you need to inform any other parties (like trade union representatives)?
- Is it okay to pass the final decision? Or is it better to have open discussions with the parties involved?
These questions can either be met before or during conflict management meetings. This is where both parties (and possibly any representation) express their side of the incident.
Set ground rules for the meeting
Employers need to set ground rules that are applicable throughout the resolution meeting. Make sure each party talks in a calm manner, and tries to understand the other person's point of view. During the meetings, you need to:
- Create a safe space where parties can speak openly or challenge the status quo without fear of being penalised.
- Explore all reasons behind the conflict in depth.
- Be fair whilst controlling the flow of the discussions.
- Have emotional intelligence when it comes to sensitive issues.
- Look for final decisions that lead to a 'win-win solution' for the people involved.
- Allow parties to take time in considering or reflecting on the final decision.
During these meetings, some people might end up feeling irate, emotional, and even aggressive. If it gets to this stage, you should suggest a 'cool-down' period. Pause the meeting and only resume once both parties acknowledge the meeting rules.
Pass a final decision
After all appropriate discussions and meetings have been held, it's time to pass a final decision.
Employers need to decide on taking the best approach for each case. You can't pass the same solution simply just because you did it previously. You need to identify options that are suitable for the individual conflict in question.
Both parties involved should know what the wrongdoing was and who will take ultimate responsibility. Explain your reasoning behind your decision and whether it's open to amendments.
For more serious issues, it might be beneficial to have a written agreement in place. This will help with future appeals through courts.
Employers should remember that the aim of conflict management is to help both parties deal with work-related issues. In the end, it's about helping them with moving forward in a professional manner.
Think about preventative strategies
The last step employers should consider is making preventative strategies.
These will help minimise certain conflicts from happening again. It can also help you spot the early signs of a hidden conflict.
It's normal for conflicts to happen from time to time. So, think about what you've learnt from managing conflicts in the past. What can be done better if this type of conflict happened again? How can your business help reduce the consequences of such disputes?
Many businesses will offer their managers or HR teams conflict management training. This can include things like, learning mediation skills and dispute resolution techniques.
What happens if you can't internally manage conflict?
Sometimes, employers might not be able to reach a mutual agreement with the other party. Or your managing conflict style isn't suitable enough for the situation.
If the conflict involved a manager, then an impartial person (with authority) should oversee the process. You may need to ask a different manager or a HR representative to lead the meeting.
Employers should remember that the main objective is still the same. It's all about reaching a fair, middle ground for all parties sitting in the conflict management meeting.
Get expert advice on conflict management with Croner
Disputes can be unavoidable things in any business. That's why employers should have a good understanding on managing conflicts at work.
By doing so, you'll be able to apply the right skills needed to resolve them quickly and peacefully. If not, you could face impacts to employee morale, retention rates, and business productivity.
But you don’t need to deal with this alone. Croner offers expert advice on managing conflict at work. Our team of involved HR advisors and qualified solicitors are here to offer their assistance and support.
Need more advice on your homeworking policy? Speak to a Croner expert about any HR or UK law issue on 0800 470 2589.
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