Checklist to Assess Your Conflict Management SystemDownload your complimentary copy of Worklogic’s free checklist to help assess the current state of your organisation’s Conflict Management System.” Download
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:
- Unclear performance agreements, leading to disappointment and confusion over unmet expectations;
- Clashes of values; and
- Resistance to change in the workplace;
- Power abuses; and
- Management decisions that are perceived to be unfair.
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:
- Harm to employees: Stress, psychological harm, physical illness
- Lost opportunities of the company: Unplanned turnover, avoidable inefficiencies
- Cost: Management distraction, HR time, external consultants, increased recruitment, paid leave, insurance premiums
- 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:
- made up of interrelated and interdependent parts;
- more than the sum of its parts;
- surrounded and influenced by its environment, culture and values;
- limited by boundaries and other constraints; and
- an influence on the behaviours of those operating within it.
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 Jean 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:
- Encourage users to voice concerns early, to minimise damage to relationships;
- Bring collaborative problem-solving into the organisation;
- Provide options for all types of problems and all people who might want to address conflict in the workplace;
- Emphasise collaborative, interest-based methods of resolution (e.g. direct discussions, facilitated meetings), but also allow for rights-based, formal determinations;
- Coordinate a web of options, structures, supports and pathways;
- Enable problem-solving to happen across areas and functions (breaking down silos and factions);
- Align with the organisation’s vision, mission and values;
- Be clear, simple, understandable and accessible to all; and
- 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.
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.
- Larger organisations should consider reviewing their CMS if:
- Conflict resolution is very formal, costly and slow at present;
- No options are available to resolve interpersonal disputes;
- The organisation is suffering cultural issues, in particular a lack of alignment with mission and values;
- There has been a recent ‘crisis’ – a single major incident or spate of certain problems – which has shown up the current system to be lacking; or
- Legislation or industry regulation now requires a new element to be added to the organisation’s our CMS, providing a good opportunity to review the whole system.
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:
- Skills, values and mindsets of the people who may become involved in the conflict
- Skills, values and mindsets of the people around the conflict (eg co-workers), who may be impacted by the conflict
- Internal advisors/supporters who can intervene and assist (eg human resources, or a manager who can facilitate a conversation)
- External resources available (eg an accredited mediator or investigator)
- Internal rules that apply to conflicts (eg internal policies, Enterprise Bargaining Agreement)
- External rules that apply to conflicts (laws and regulations)
- Other resources available to those impacted by the conflict
- The organisation’s communication flows and use of technology for interaction
- The types of disputes that are arising (factual, legal, technical, interpersonal), their causes, and whether they are cyclical
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.
- One-off policies were developed after a nasty misconduct case, but there are gaps in the policy suite and it was last reviewed in the 90s!
- The processes for complaints-handling are not clear, they overlap, or they are confusing. Employees don’t understand their options, or are discouraged from pursuing them.
- Some groups are directly or indirectly left out of the system.
- Complaints are not addressed completely, leaving the complainant, respondent and their colleagues wondering why ‘nothing was done’.
- Data about conflict from exit interviews is not captured, and dismissed as irrelevant (“That person didn’t want to be here anyway… they just left for better money”).
- The policies are excellent but staff training is sub-standard, non-compulsory or rare.
- Managers are not having difficult conversations or setting performance expectations.
- The system is too bureaucratic and formal, so employees tend to give up.
- There is a lack of support to move conflict resolution to the next level (e.g. time of HR Business Partner, budget to engage a mediator)
- HR Business Partners have little time to address issues early, or are not sufficiently known to staff in their areas.
- Mid-level managers were given insufficient training to manage people, after being promoted for their technical skills.
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:
- Investing in mid-level managers’ ability to resolve conflict and have difficult conversations.
- A new policy to cover an emerging mode of communication and interaction (e.g. social media, staff relationships) or to address new regulations or community expectations (e.g. whistleblower protection)
- Introducing a new advisor or supporter of employees who need help to work through thorny issues, e.g. an Independent Facilitator or Organisational Ombudsman, mediation training for HR or in-house legal, the ability to pull together a Review Panel or appoint an Arbitrator at short notice
- Facilities to build trust and connection, such as a team building program
- Online training, so that managers and employees can access modules ‘on demand’ when they want to intervene in poor conduct in the workplace, have difficult conversations, manage power imbalances or better deal with conflict
- Coaching for complaints-handlers and managers, to assist them to address issues early
- IntegrityLine online complaints-handling, which enables anonymous complaints
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:
- Accessible to all?
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:
- Other changes on the horizon that will impact employees
- The industrial relations environment, including formal consultation requirements
- The organisational culture and its ability to adapt
- The level of trust amongst employees
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.
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.
Checklist to Assess Your Conflict Management SystemDownload your complimentary copy of Worklogic’s free checklist to help assess the current state of your organisation’s Conflict Management System.” Download
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