It’s about this time of year that two diminutive Geordies, cling to an antipodean rope bridge and ask to be taken away from it all. Whilst those opening titles are just for televisual effect, the sentiment is one that resonates with many as the end of the year approaches and the festive holidays become more than a dot on the horizon: after all sometimes you just need to draw a line under things and this time of year provides that perfect chance to step out, take pause, re-group before re-engaging afresh in the New Year.
In so doing there’s invariably a few things left on the “didn’t get to” or “too hard to have cracked this year” lists. For the HR Directors we talk to and the surveys and analysis we look at, there’s one topic appearing on more and more of these “Yet-To-Do” lists and that’s workplace conflict.
“Workplace conflict”, in this context, isn’t about collective, industrial disputes or competing priorities between departments or divisions, it’s about relationships that become broken; that spiral down from friction, annoyance and irritation and eventually end up toxic, unworkable and hugely distracting.
Why is this becoming more of an issue?
Are people becoming that bit more aggressive or that bit less tolerant? Are managers becoming less adept at managing their teams? Are people just that bit less likely to conform so we are seeing a general polarisation of opinion and personality traits at work? Are people just not prepared to put up with things they may have done in the past?
Or is it more about the working environment and an unintended consequence of greater pressures on performance; reductions in staffing levels; a general shift away from collective action to address individual grievances and the introduction of tribunal fees pushing dispute resolution back into the workplace?
As ever there’s probably a range of different contributory factors and therefore trying to address root causes is, in all likelihood, a fruitless and thankless task that goes way beyond an individual HR Director’s span of control. So what options are there or is this too big an issue to ever make meaningful inroads?
Mediation isn’t a new concept and over the last decade organisations have increasingly adopted alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods to address workplace conflict. In fact the CIPD reported earlier this year that 29% of the businesses it surveyed say they have used mediation in the previous 12 months. However what businesses think they’re doing and how their people perceive these efforts are at odds: the CIPD also reported that only 1.5% of employees believed their employer used mediation to resolve disputes. Perhaps this is why “sorting out workplace conflict” is still in the “To-Do” pile.
Our thoughts? Adopt the template that most progressive organisations have used over the past 10-15 years when they’ve developed internal coaching capability. We’ve all trained and developed managers in coaching principles, tools, techniques and processes – not because we wanted people to abandon their line management positions and become coaches, but because we wanted them to be able to support their team’s development and (perhaps more importantly) “take a coaching approach” in their day to day management – it makes for more effective managers and creates a more supportive work environment.
Mediation can be treated in exactly the same way – don’t make it the preserve of the specialist or a dedicated pool of internal mediators – make it a core management competence. Train managers in dispute resolution methods and processes; give them the tools and techniques so they are not only equipped to intervene when relationships go toxic, but they can take a “mediation approach” in those day-to-day managerial situations when things get tense, tetchy, contentious and, if we’re not careful, ever so slightly personal. If we take this approach we might even start nipping things in the bud before they spiral out of control.
So when you’re compiling your New Years’ resolutions perhaps these practical steps might help… after all you’re probably going to need some new tricks up your sleeve when the festivities are over and you’re parachuted back into the jungle!