Jul 25

Evolving approaches to managing workplace conflict

Eleven years on from 2007, when we first started Worklogic, it is interesting to reflect on what the evolving approaches to managing workplace conflict and complaints.

1. Workplace Investigation remains the key tool for serious allegations

A solidly conducted workplace investigation has been, is, and always will be a fundamentally important response when allegations of serious misconduct, such as sexual harassment or bullying, come to your notice. It is the reliable and fair pathway you have for identifying whether the alleged conduct occurred or not, and minimising the panoply of risk: people risk, compliance risk, legal, productivity and reputational risk.

What’s also been fascinating over the past decade is how much more awareness we now see about what constitutes a procedurally fair investigation, and when, and why, you need to instigate one (See this blog on Your Pre-Investigation Check List if you would like a refresher).

2. More organisation-led investigations

From our perspective, one noticeable trend over the years has been the increasing awareness and willingness of employers to now run an “organisation-led” investigation about behavioural allegations. There appears to be less sole focus on whether a complaint is formally lodged or not by a ‘complainant’.

This reflects the growing understanding of organisations of taking relevant steps to provide a safe and healthy working environment for all, including in the workplace behavioural space.

3. The emergence of facilitated discussions as an alternative to mediation

Similarly, in the mediation space, the offering by an employer of mediation to employees in conflict was certainly on the radar back in 2007, either in lieu of, or after, an investigation. Without getting too Darwinian about it, over the past decade, there has now been increasing ‘species variation’ as to what’s the most helpful dialogue tool to assist employees to work through interpersonal conflict or disputes.

Sometimes, the formal steps involved in a mediation process are necessary. They are designed to ensure that the parties in mediation are able to focus on the issues at hand, engage in a meaningful and constructive way, and, are able to participate in a neutral forum.

On other occasions, the need for a conversation, in and of itself, means that there is now much greater interest in seeking to run a facilitated discussion, or, a simple discussion, or even (yes!) “a chat”. Regardless of what it is called, the decision to have that conversation run by someone from the ‘outside’ can be a powerful circuit breaker. Depending on the circumstances, this approach will yield a smoother, less fraught and more productive exchange of views, and solutions as needed, to occur.

We would observe that in contrast to a decade ago, we are now also finding much greater use of group facilitated discussions. Why? Not all dysfunctional dynamics are binary! The need to encourage an open and constructive dialogue across a whole team often manifests following a culture review or an investigation. Whilst the discussion topic can be as varied as you would like, whether it is “values”, “communication”, “the future”, or “what we want from each other”, these group discussions can literally help the team re-group: rebuild trust and confidence, and creatively establish better ways of working.

4. Conflict Coaching – the rising star!

What has undoubtedly been the rising star of late in this mix is the offering of conflict coaching. This part of your ‘conflict solution mix’ has clearly evolved in response to the fact that not all situations need two parties in the room.

Where an employee may be acting in a way which is habitually conflictual or dysfunctional way, the focus needs to be in exploring, with that individual, what is going on for them and what is driving that problematic behaviour across a range of workplace encounters. Through a process of targeted inquiry, the individual is coached, over time, about how they can develop or enhance their skills, knowledge and competencies, to more effectively engage in and manage interpersonal conflict.

Not surprisingly, changing the dysfunctional ways for how an individual engages with others can take some time. As you may know, it takes approximately 12 weeks to break a habit. The beauty of conflict coaching recognises this fact, and the methodology which underpins the process is about facilitating the participant to have the necessary insights themselves about their conflictual behaviour. Furthermore, in contrast to mediation, there may not even necessarily be a “joint session” where two employees explore future options for how they might engage with each more harmoniously.

There is therefore definitely not the same sort of expectation with conflict coaching that a one or two hour dialogue will “sort it all out”. Such expectations, depending on what is driving the conflict, can in fact sometimes be highly unrealistic. In particular, if two staff are in a seriously dysfunctional dynamic, a standard mediation process may not be sufficient to overcome their severe hostility and lack of perspective towards each other. Again, focusing more time on solo sessions in order to unpack the core issues at stake and what is driving the extreme depth of hostility will be necessary in order to bring about a more balanced dialogue between the parties later on.

About Grevis Beard

Grevis Beard, WorklogicGrevis Beard is the co-founder and Director of Worklogic and has amassed significant knowledge of the dynamics of workplace disputes and their resolution from more than a decade’s experience at Worklogic. Grevis works with a range of clients to improve workplace communication and behaviour, manage workplace risks and handle complaints  by conducting workplace investigationsmediations and reviews.

Worklogic works with employers to resolve workplace complaints and create a positive culture at work.  Please contact Grevis for an obligation-free, confidential discussion on any challenges you face in the workplace.

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