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Taking a systematic approach to workplace conflict management

Conflict Management System Design (CMSD) enables organisations to proactively review the way conflict arises and improve how it is handled in the workplace.

Consider this analogy. Rather than simply recommend paracetamol for a persistent headache, a good doctor will likely take your blood pressure, enquire about your stress levels, sleep, diet and exercise, take a blood test, and discuss any family history of illnesses, among other things.

Similarly, rather than tinkering with only one element of conflict management in the workplace – updating a whistleblower policy to meet new regulatory requirements, for example – Conflict Management Systems Design (CMSD) encourages us to step back and look at the whole system. We’re encouraged to consider what is working and what is not, whether the end-to-end processes are seamless or clunky, whether the users in the system (employees and other stakeholders) are finding it workable, and what optimal functioning could be achieved.

Conflict in the Workplace

When we talk about ‘conflict’ in the workplace, many examples come to mind: disputed performance ratings, competition over desirable shift allocations, clashes of values over how we communicate, or stalemates over whose turn it is to load the dishwasher in the team room.

Of course, disagreements at work are inevitable and can be highly productive. Healthy conflict can enrich our relationships, teach us new approaches, and push our ideas to the next level. Without disagreement (together with respect and trust), there might be no innovation! We’d just keep doing everything the way we always have.

In our experience, some of the most common sources of conflict in the workplace are:

Individual responses to conflict are many and varied. We often fear conflict, which can feel risky, awkward, ‘personal’ and unpleasant. Often, when managers realise that unconstructive disagreement has arisen in their teams, they shut down and avoid it. They think “It’s an interpersonal dispute. The employees should fix it themselves”, or perhaps “I might make it worse if I intervene”, or (a hardy perennial) “That’s just the way it’s always been”. This is hardly surprising: in our experience, few people have been trained to understand and handle conflict in the workplace. Human beings tend to shy away from conflict (the ‘fight or flight’ response is common), and few managers are given the training, supports and resources they need to be able to handle conflict with confidence.

In a research study in an organisation in Florida, USA (2013), researchers Linda Flynn and Neil Katz considered the awareness, perception and use by leaders and managers of conflict management systems and strategies. They discovered a high degree of confusion and frustration, as well as dissatisfaction with the antiquated grievance system. The authors commented that most organisations lack an integrated conflict management system, lamenting the lost opportunity for happier, more harmonious workplaces.

The costs of unhealthy conflict

Unhealthy conflict and contested complaints are all too common in Australian workplaces. In 2016 research by Dr Lindsay McMillan, 20% of the respondent employees reported that they had experienced major problems in communication with a co-worker or manager. A massive 50% reported that they had experienced one or more serious incidents of conflict or other negative conduct at work.

Several studies have shown that managers spend 21-40% of their time dealing with conflict as a primary party or third party, and at least 50% of voluntary resignations relate directly to unresolved conflict (see Katz and Flynn, 2013).

If workplace conflict is left to fester, it is unlikely to solve itself or naturally disappear, particularly if the conflict is about values or unmet expectations. In our experience at Worklogic, unresolved conflict can lead to:

  1. Harm to employees: Stress, psychological harm, physical illness
  2. Lost opportunities of the company: Unplanned turnover, avoidable inefficiencies
  3. Cost: Management distraction, HR time, external consultants, increased recruitment, paid leave, insurance premiums
  4. Lesser outcomes: Innovation, relationships, skills, outputs, morale, legitimacy amongst external stakeholders

If a toxic employee is involved in the conflict, the conflict impacts on co-workers as well as the immediate party to the conflict. In a 2015 Harvard Business School report, Housman and Minor claim that having a toxic employee on the payroll costs the average business an additional USD $15,169 per year, primarily due to loss of valued team members who can no longer tolerate the negative atmosphere that the toxic employee creates.

Further, legal costs and reputational damage to the company can be huge. The Royal Commissions into institutional responses to child sex abuse, misconduct in the banking and finance industry, and aged care (due to report in April 2020), are high-profile examples. So too are cases of ‘rogue’ traders, sleazy politicians and CEOs, and various cases described by anti-corruption agencies.

The costs and risks of unhealthy conflict are simply too high for employers to ignore. Many are hidden and indirect – but this shouldn’t lessen our resolve to minimise unhealthy conflict, and to offer employees and other users a more effective system to address conflict and poor behaviour in the workplace.

Taking a ‘Systems’ approach

A systems approach is useful when thinking about Conflict Management. A ‘system’ is:

When thinking about a system that operates in a workplace, we need to keep in mind that changing one part of the system usually affects other parts of the system, as well as the whole system overall. Any element can be improved or introduced to optimise the system’s operation, but we need to look at system as a whole, not only its individual parts. The patterns, influences and integrations between the parts of the system – including the people, the politics, the control mechanisms, the culture and values – are of significant interest in systems thinking.

For example, if Vignesh decides to limit the annual Equal Opportunity training to permanent staff for financial reasons, could this affect the cultures of those teams with mostly casual staff? If https://www.worklogic.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/R0A0425-scaled-1.jpg includes a strongly-worded statement in the Complaints Policy about false claims being treated as vexatious, or requiring that every potential ‘unreasonable behaviour’ be handled as if it were bullying, how might these changes be reflected later in complaints statistics? If Christina focuses next year’s annual leadership retreat on reducing the hierarchical ‘command and control’ management styles, might there be an increase in formal complaints due to increased trust that managers will do something to improve things?

What is a Conflict Management System?

A Conflict Management System is a system within an organisation for the prevention of escalation of conflicts and the handling and resolution of conflicts.

Note that the goal is not to prevent conflict altogether – it would be damaging to try to suppress it. Instead the goals is to prevent its escalation by setting up the mechanisms for its effective expression and handling.

Some key CMSD principles are as follows (SPIDR, 2001). The system should:

  1. Encourage users to voice concerns early, to minimise damage to relationships;
  2. Bring collaborative problem-solving into the organisation;
  3. Provide options for all types of problems and all people who might want to address conflict in the workplace;
  4. Emphasise collaborative, interest-based methods of resolution (e.g. direct discussions, facilitated meetings), but also allow for rights-based, formal determinations;
  5. Coordinate a web of options, structures, supports and pathways;
  6. Enable problem-solving to happen across areas and functions (breaking down silos and factions);
  7. Align with the organisation’s vision, mission and values;
  8. Be clear, simple, understandable and accessible to all; and
  9. Be user-friendly and flexible, to enable users to feel empowered to try different dispute resolution options (within consent of all parties).

The key elements of a CMS will depend on the organisation and users for which it has been designed. The CMS might cover employees and managers only (internal disputes), or it can be designed to cover conflict with outside stakeholders such as customers, contractors and suppliers.

A good CMS will provide options for all types of people who might want to use the system, and all types of problems. It should encourage employees to bring up problems and concerns, and to explore with the company ways that they might address them. Ideally, participants should be given the option to resume a more collaborative process if they are able to, even if a formal determinative process has commenced. By encouraging employees and others to raise conflict and to address it constructively, the CMS can create a culture that welcomes dissent and encourages resolution of conflict at a low level, through direct negotiation.

The CMS should provide multiple access points and different mechanisms for dispute resolution that employees can use. The mechanisms should include rights-based processes (eg formal determination of a grievance) and interest-based processes (eg facilitated discussions) for addressing conflict.

To help the employees understand their conflict and make an informed choice about the next steps, the organisation should ensure that there is a knowledgeable and trusted person available to advise employees. Ideally, that person should be impartial, and not only managing the organisation’s risks and obligations. The organisation should recognise that the employee will likely be feeling overwhelmed and scared when they first enter the Conflict Management System, so they will need information, unbiased support, and easy access points.

Too American?

One of the criticisms of CMSD is that it emerged from the USA, where formal litigation is very common, and so is potentially less relevant and less necessary in other countries. A group of Irish commentators even called CMSD a “radical” intervention! (Teague et al, 2017)

America-based companies have a 11-12% chance of being sued by an employee (Insurance Journal, 2015). It makes sense then that American companies have a strong financial incentive to explore actively any opportunities that are available to them to address conflict early and informally, and to encourage the resolution of disputes before employees resort to legal action.

This doesn’t mean however that countries outside the USA can’t learn from CMSD. Minimising the risk of litigation arising out of conflict is only one benefit of implementing a CMS. If we agree that unhealthy conflict is damaging to health, efficiency, productivity and employee retention, there are ample reasons to learn from and apply the American expertise.

Does my organisation need a Conflict Management System?

If your organisation is small and lacking resources, a CMS may sound like a luxury. Many organisations have minimal Human Resources support internally, let alone in-house legal, wellbeing advisors, counsellors and mediators. The principles of CMS are still useful, however, even if the organisation’s ‘system’ is comprised of some quality policies, quality guidance for staff, and some skilled and wise advisors who can be called upon to assist.

[su_box title=”Case Study” box_color=”#6f8d51″]Craig loved his new job in a large construction firm but was increasingly distressed about the homophobic jibes that the team directed towards him. He tried talking to the apparent ringleader, but Mike had laughed in his face and walked off. He thought maybe his supervisor could help, but Marg said she thought confronting the issue might just make matters worse. She suggested that his colleagues were just testing him, and Craig would do best to just ride it out. She said she couldn’t stop Craig going to HR if he really wanted to. Craig didn’t know anyone in HR and a formal complaint at this stage felt way too formal.

He looked on the website to see what the policy said, but he wasn’t sure whether he was being bullied or sexually harassed or whether he should log this in the OHS system. Was this a complaint or a grievance or an incident? Was there a difference? There was a different procedure for each different type of concern. There appeared to be a lot of forms and it all seemed very formal! Really, he just wanted the behaviour to stop. Craig did find a number for a Contact Officer, Lachlan, on a rather tired-looking poster pinned to the break room notice board, so he rang to see if he could help. The person who answered the phone said he was sorry, but Lachlan had left the Company at least 18 months ago and he didn’t know whether anyone had been appointed to replace him as Contact Officer.

Although not yet a member, Craig rang the Union. The organiser was sympathetic but said they didn’t encourage member-on-member complaints – it wasn’t really consistent with the Union ethos. The Union organiser did suggest that Craig’s supervisor really should have treated this as a safety incident. He told Craig should report his supervisor to his supervisor’s boss. Craig thought that would probably kill his career before it started. Craig got online and searched the internet to see if he could find some help from outside the company.

He joined a Facebook group called ‘Bullied at Work’ and posted about his situation at work. He got over fifty responses from group members, advising him to do everything from making a ‘stop bullying’ application under the Fair Work Act, to contacting A Current Affair and getting them to run an exposé on homophobia in the construction industry. By now Craig was feeling really distressed. He rang the EAP helpline. The lady there was kind, gave him some coping techniques and suggested he find the company’s Code of Conduct. He expressed concern about making a formal complaint; she thought that mediation might be a more constructive way to go. However she was not sure who could authorise the use of a mediator. She thought that was probably in the hands of HR.

‘You know what?’ Craig thought to himself, ‘It really will be simpler to just look for another job’.[/su_box]

How to design a Conflict Management System for your organisation

The CMS must be tailored to the organisation’s needs, circumstances and culture. Ideally, the CMS should be designed with input from past and potential users of the system, as well as providers and decision-makers.

The CMS design certainly doesn’t have to be perfect and implemented all at once! It can include some experimentation over time, and staged introduction of new policies, information and roles.

Step One: Start by gaining an understanding of the ‘Current State’

Start with the organisation’s values and culture, any strategic initiatives or changes on the horizon, and how the organisation’s leaders understand conflict.

Consider the current state of:

Also relevant, of course, are the organisation’s values and culture, any strategic initiatives or changes on the horizon, and the leaders’ own modelling of conflict resolution.

Getting a handle on how conflict is playing out in the workplace may need an employee survey, focus groups and interviews with key players in conflict resolution, including HR, in-house legal, and senior managers. A review of recent complaint files may also be appropriate.

It’s helpful to think through the elements of the current system: What elements are working well, and what elements are not? To make a sound assessment of how the CMS is currently working in your organisation, work through the elements set out in our downloadable checklist.

You may need to gather more data. Consider conducting a survey of employees, focus groups or interviews with key players in conflict resolution (HR, in-house legal, senior managers), or a review of recent complaint files.

Step Two: Are there any opportunities for immediate improvement?

Gaining a deeper understanding of the current state of conflict resolution in your workplace will likely reveal some ‘quick wins’. Often, while most of the system’s moving parts are functioning, there are some elements missing and there is a distinct lack of cohesion, consistency and follow-through.

Here are some of the opportunities for development that we often identify when reviewing an organisation’s CMS.

Substance

Completion

Resources

Step Three: What new element could enhance our system?

Like any ‘system’, in a CMS any element can be improved or introduced, to optimise the system’s operation. Don’t feel that you need to keep the existing elements of the CMS because ‘that’s the way we have always done it’. The minimalist or traditional approach is not necessarily the best, particularly if you want to encourage employees to try different ways of bringing conflict and concerns to the surface.

Some of the new elements you might consider are:

[su_box title=”Three Innovative Heath Care Examples” box_color=”#6f8d51″]Here are three excellent examples of innovative approaches to conflict management from the health care system:

1. Independent Facilitators

Safer Care Victoria is trialling two ‘Independent Facilitators’ working in metropolitan and regional health services across Victoria. The pilot was supported by Worklogic’s consultation with hospitals and implementation assistance. Independent Facilitators are a resource for hospital staff concerned about workplace issues such as bullying, harassment, and discrimination. The Independent Facilitator is guided by four principles: independence, neutrality, confidentiality, and informality. They report periodically to Safer Care Victoria, providing de-identified visitor information and potential emerging issues. The independent facilitator is supported by a charter and operating guidelines, also developed by Worklogic. The Independent Facilitator assists employees at the Health Services to clarify and reframe the problem. They might coach an employee through a difficult conversation that they need to have with their manager, or provide information about other avenues available to staff for conflict resolution, both formal and informal. Similar roles called ‘Workplace Facilitators’ also exist in government department in Victoria, and at Canberra Health Services, also advised by Worklogic.

2. The Nursing and Midwifery Health Program Victoria

The Nursing and Midwifery Health Program Victoria (NMHPV) assists nurses and midwives experiencing health issues related to their mental health or substance use concerns. The Doctor’s Health Program for medical practitioners is similar. The NMHPV has multiple entry points, including self-referral and employer-assisted referrals, as well as referrals by colleagues, industrial organisations and from the Australia Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). The services offered include assessment and treatment referrals, ongoing support, and also liaison with the employer and support with re-entry into the workplace. NMHPV also provides advice to managers and HR staff seeking to address these health concerns of nurses in the workplace. NMHPV trains a network of volunteer ‘champions’ within health services in metropolitan and regional Victoria to identify colleagues who may be in need of support and helps them to identify how NMHPV can assist. They also provide their champions with resources and strategies to support thriving workplaces.

3. weCare at Melbourne Health

weCare is a confidential, anonymous support service offered by Melbourne Health as a part of its integrated Safety First program. It’s part of a culture shift aimed at breaking down a damaging hierarchical culture. The weCare system is a safety net designed to capture data when staff feel unsafe or unable to have a direct conversation. weCare allows staff to provide anonymous feedback about behaviours that are not consistent with Melbourne Health’s safety culture and values: Capture: weCare captures data and complaints about safety and values on an anonymous basis through a web-based database. Triage: The data collected by weCare is triaged by an experienced Triage team, trained to assess patterns, and assess data against Melbourne Health data. Assign: The Triage team can refer cases to trained ‘care messengers’ who are trained to have conversations with colleagues to tell them what was alleged about their conduct and ask them to reflect on it. Respond: If the triage team is concerned that there is a pattern of behaviour, or if the matter reported is serious, it can recommend a series of scaled interventions from informal conversations to disciplinary action.[/su_box]

Step Four: Imagine and stress-test the improved system

Now that you have considered the ‘current state’ and some additional elements which would strengthen the system’s efficacy and fairness, pause and remember the systems approach. You’ve considered the individual parts of the system, now imagine the new and improved system as a whole. How will the new and improved elements work together? Map out the whole system – will it be:

Thinking through your organisation’s CMS in this way will ensure it will be integrated and a good fit with its values and workplace culture.

Step Five: Implement new and improved elements

The introduction of new and improved elements will, of course, be staged over time. Consider their introduction as a change project, taking into account:

As with any change project, the buy-in and positive influence of senior leaders will be crucial. Is there at least one senior person who can be a champion of the conflict-competent culture that you want to achieve? Ideally your effects will be supported by employee leaders and unions, as well as people with formal authority.

Step Six: Review and assess impact

There is no such thing as a perfect system, or an unchanging one. Systems evaluation and feedback loops are important, to assess whether the changes you make to your organisation’s CMS are having the intended effect (and no worrying unintended effects), and how the CMS is working over time.

Early on, consider what feedback you will collect during the early years about what has been achieved as well as what has been learned about the CMS and the users’ and participants’ experiences of it. What metrics will you choose to measure the success of your efforts?

What has been the employees’ experience of using the system? Are they more or less likely to utilise the informal and formal channels that exist? Are visits, enquiries and consultations to Human Resources (and other relevant players) increasing in number? Are concerns still ‘stalling’ at a particular point in the process? Are employees better informed of their options? Is information easy for them to find? Do they have greater trust in their managers to handle their concerns with respect, confidentiality and good judgment?

Planning the collection of this data, and ensuring its analysis and retention, will be vital in demonstrating the value of the systems approach you have taken, and enable continuous improvements. Share feedback with stakeholders, and be open to modifying the system over time.

Conclusion

A well-designed conflict management system is not rocket science, or even necessarily a major project. Designed carefully, it will significantly improve the working experience of your employees, health and wellbeing of all, the company culture, as well as the bottom line.

The negative health impacts, productivity losses, wasted management time and unnecessary stress causes by unresolved conflict are all notable and avoidable. There are tremendous advantages for employers to think strategically and proactively about how conflict emerges in their workplaces, and how it can be channelled towards constructive resolution. Relationships can improve and skills deepen. Costs are avoided and employee health and engagement improves.

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Resources

https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2015/10/28/386321.htm Useful comparison statistics for Australia are not available at time of writing.

Paul Teague, William Roche, Denise Currie and Tom Gormley, ‘ADR-based Workplace Conflict Management Systems: A Case of American Exceptionalism’, Conflict and its Resolution in the Changing World of Work, Cornell University ILR School, 11-2017. https://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/lipskycrconference/11/

Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution ‘SPIDR’ (2001), Designing integrated conflict management systems: Guidelines for practitioners and decision makers in organizations (Cornell Studies in Conflict and Dispute Resolution. No. 4). Ithaca, New York. http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/icr/2

Neil Katz and Linda Flynn, ‘Understanding Conflict Management Systems and Strategies in the Workplace: A Pilot Study’, Conflict Resolution Quarterly, vol. 30 no. 4, Summer 2013.

Cathy Constantino and Christina Sickles Merchant (1996), Designing Conflict Management Systems.

Ury, W., Brett, J and Goldberg, S. Getting Disputes Resolved: Designing Systems to Cut the Costs of Conflict (1988, Jossey-Bass).

Lipsky, D.B., Seeber, R. and Fincher, R.B. Emerging Systems for Managing Workplace Conflict: Lessons from American Corporations for Managers and Dispute Resolution Professionals (2003, Jossey Bass).

John Ford (2003), Organizational Conflict Management: What’s a System? https://www.mediate.com/articles/ford9.cfm

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Integrity Line is an independent whistleblower service for complaints about inappropriate conduct at work, provided by Worklogic. Click here to visit the Integrity Line website.