The art of avoiding & resolving workplace conflict – Some practical measures for managers

The art of avoiding and resolving workplace conflict – Some practical measures for managers

Mary Parker Follett famously described management as “…the art of getting things done through people.” The choice of the word art, not science, serves as a reminder that avoiding and resolving workplace conflict, surely a component of great management, is a similar process to the creation of great art. If it is to be done well, it too requires both proper planning and skillful practice.

Three concepts for any manager to reflect on in planning and practicing avoiding and resolving workplace conflict are transparency, consistency and inclusion. I make this claim only because of the regularity in which allegations around unfairness and a cited breakdown in communication arise in many unhealthy workplace conflicts where the parties involved feel that matters have moved beyond their own abilities to resolve. In other words, they feel they need external assistance.

Looking first at communication (or miscommunication). On the one end of the spectrum, too little communication can be interpreted as disinterest, neglect or in extreme cases, ostracisation. On the other hand, too much communication can be seen as micro-management, a lack of competence in a leader or at the further end of the spectrum, harassment. Whether a breakdown in communication is indeed a causative factor or a consequence of other underlying issues, it’s still something that managers need to be aware of when considering practical measures they can take to prevent and minimise allegations of exclusion or harassment.

The second issue that often emerges when investigating or scoping workplace conflict is a real or perceived lack of fairness. This can take the form of claims of preferential treatment, a lack of input into important decision-making processes or perhaps resentment that has built up over conceived inconsistencies in making and/or applying decisions. It is for this reason (among others I have written about in other posts) that I cite consistency and transparency as key considerations.

Apart from these three concepts, here are 11 other more specific approaches that you may want to consider in avoiding and resolving unhealthy workplace conflict.

  1. Develop a deeper understanding of the work habits, aspirations and personal styles of staff and colleagues. Consider using a tool if you need to gain an objective perspective or want to create a shared language that people can use to describe their preferences, styles or motivators.
  2. Establish ground-rules and clear expectations around role responsibilities, reporting relationships and decision-making processes.
  3. Promote desired workplace behaviours by modelling them yourself.
  4. Act quickly in a procedurally fair manner when you perceive major or consistent breaches of established values and codes of conduct.
  5. Think of ways you can actively promote diversity in your workplace. Practice participatory decision-making wherever possible. Introduce flexibility (when it’s important and possible).
  6. Check that you have relevant, clear, concise and current human resource policies and procedures. Make sure that your employees know what is in them. If you don’t have internal capacity, use external providers in a targeted fashion to build it. Believe me …it’s always cheaper than the alternative.
  7. Develop your people management skills by regularly talking to staff and listening carefully to what you are hearing. Hold regular team meetings and observe how people interact.
  8. Set aside time every week when your door is open and anyone can come and talk to you. Managing remote staff is another art (we run facilitated discussions on this very topic).
  9. Schedule regular social events (consider part-time staff or others working flexible arrangements when you do this otherwise you may unintentionally exclude them).
  10. Think about the development of your staff. If you have a flat structure, consider getting people working together on projects, promote mentoring, consider job or task rotation.
  11. Gain insight into how other stakeholders view and experience your staff.

Great management, like great art, benefits from continual planning and practice. Don’t treat any of the above as simply one-off exercises.

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