Managing workplace conflict

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By the Human Resource Professionals of Antigua and Barbuda

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines conflict as a competitive or opposing action of incompatibles based on divergent ideas, interests or persons. More specifically, workplace conflict can be defined as a strong difference of opinion that occurs in the workplace. It may start as a simple complaint or just a difference of opinion. 

A favourite quote of one of our now deceased media personalities was that “difference of opinion makes a horse race”. Now, as exciting as a horse race is, they are loud, and constant noise can prove to be a distraction. The same can be said of any protracted disagreement between work colleagues. They eventually turn into distractions that take time and effort away from collaborating towards accomplishing organisational goals.

The causes of workplace conflict can vary from simple miscommunication that leads to misunderstanding, differences in belief systems based on background and perception, and different cultural practices and experience.

Douglas Reid, a business strategy professor and researcher said, “we fight not because we truly disagree but because we fail to understand each other”. Conflict can also arise from unresolved past issues, ineffective leadership, jockeying for position and unclear work assignments or inequity in the division of labour.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), workplace conflict is inevitable when employees of various backgrounds and different work styles are brought together for a shared business purpose. Conflict can and should be managed and resolved. 

It is inescapable that if conflict is not managed properly and swiftly it can be extremely detrimental to the team dynamics, productivity, morale and ultimately damaging to business performance. The Thomas–Kilmann conflict resolution model suggests five methods of conflict resolution: avoidance, competition, collaboration, accommodation and compromise. However, when the relationship and the goals are important to the parties in conflict, compromise through negotiation is thought to be the best approach to achieve a win-win resolution. 

So, what is the HR professional’s role in managing conflict so that it does not distract from the mission and goals of our respective organisations? While the first response to handling workplace conflict rests with the employees who are at odds with each other, employers, represented by HR, have a role to play.

Encourage a workplace culture that is strong on employee relations, and advocates fairness, trust and mutual respect at all levels. Start by asking managers, supervisors and team leaders to be accountable and model the behaviour they seek. Encourage consistency and honesty at every level even when it is difficult, remembering to be patient as our teams comprise of individuals and are not homogeneous.  

Create and manage conflict resolution training programmes. Include conflict resolution training for supervisors and managers as part of their professional development. When conflict resolution is mentioned, most persons immediately think of mediation. However, a large part of conflict management is teaching team members how to handle disagreements and how to pre-emptively handle issues. Workplace sessions on emotional intelligence and how to cultivate healthy interpersonal relationships could be helpful.

Develop workplace policies designed to handle conflict among employees as expeditiously as possible. Most times, HR becomes aware of workplace conflict after it has been escalated. Putting procedures in place for the organisation that outline progressive guidelines on how to deal with conflict is recommended.

Employees should be encouraged in the first instance to work out their differences, and where that is not possible then a supervisor gets involved as mediator before it is escalated to HR. They should also be expected to value and respect their coworkers’ opinions and their right to express them, even when they differ from their own.

Policies should also include the procedures to be followed when investigating complaints and who will be tasked with listening to both parties air their issues and determining a course of action for redress that everyone can live with. Verification of facts is important, and honest open communication, in a respectful, supportive environment on neutral ground, free from interruptions is necessary.

In summary, managing conflict is crucial to meeting organisational goals. In a very diverse work team, with high performing team members, conflict should be expected from time to time. People managers should handle disagreements promptly and not allow them to fester. Remember to be fair and communicate clearly because in the end, conflict management is about listening, empathy and compromise.

The Human Resource Professionals of Antigua and Barbuda (HRPAB) is a registered non-profit, professional association dedicated to the advancement of the HR profession for national development. We began informally in 2009 and legally registered in 2011. HRPAB’s growing membership represents private and public organisations as well as independent consultants specialising in one or more areas of human resource management and development. Membership is offered for three categories: professional, non-professional, and honorary. You may contact us via email at [email protected] or on Facebook and Instagram @HRPro268.

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