How to bring conflict wisdom to work

Published Jul 27, 2011

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It has been said that workplace conflict is probably the most avoidable cost that organisations face and the most damaging in terms of relationships, underperformance and waste of valuable management time.

A recent survey of 260 US chief executives and senior managers of leading Fortune 500 companies showed that they spent on average 24 percent of their time resolving conflicts at work. Another survey reported that 22 percent of employees surveyed stated that they had decreased their work effort because of conflict while close on 50 percent in the same survey indicated that they actually lost work time because of conflict. A further 12 percent said they had changed jobs because of conflict at work. Less than 20 percent were able to find “win-win” solutions.

Conflict at work is a reality that cannot be ignored. The more rights workers are granted by legislation, the greater the tendency will be to rely on a rights-based approach to resolve disputes about alleged rights infringements. This approach focuses on the rights or wrongs of a historical event and seeks resolution from arbitration or a judge. Not only is a rights-based approach backward looking or reactive, it also sacrifices control over the duration, cost, process and outcome of the dispute.

South Africa is facing changes to the Labour Relations Act, Employment Equity Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, and the introduction of a new Employment Services Bill, which contains provisions that regulate the activities of labour brokers.

In low trust work environments, the proposed new, rather draconian methods for enforcing labour legislation and penalising non-compliance will simply encourage disgruntled employees and their representatives to choose the law or power options over more cost effective and relationship-saving methods for resolving differences. Chief among these joint problem-solving methods are different forms of dialogue and, if needs be, mediation.

The proposed statutory changes provide an opportunity for management to re-examine the way in which conflicts and disputes are managed and resolved.

When differences arise, we seem to be hard-wired psychologically to focus most of our energy on avoiding the problem until the size of the problem forces us into power-based solutions (discipline, dismissal and strikes) or rights-based options (arbitration or adjudication). These above power- and rights-based responses carry far greater direct, relationship and sometimes reputational costs than processes focused on achieving agreed solutions.

Joint problem-solving or collaborative, consensus-seeking approaches to dealing with the problem, potentially the best solution in terms of cost, time and control over process and outcome, seem to be the last resort. A healthier, more cost effective approach that is more in keeping with the Labour Relations Act’s original intent and far more conducive to developing trust and sustainable solutions would require us to rather look at collaborating to find wise and mutually beneficial solutions. Litigation should become a fall-back option and not the first port of call, while the use of power or force should be the absolute last resort.

Yet it is notoriously difficult for management to bring itself to have those difficult conversations at work, or to engage in joint problem solving.

A 2006 Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution survey of 600 British businesses showed that only 37 percent of managers considered themselves to be adequately trained to deal with conflict. Managers also showed themselves to be decidedly conflict averse: in excess of 35 percent stated that they would rather parachute jump for the first time than engage an employee over underperformance. When a separate research team looked at a series of business failures arising from unsuccessful strategic decisions, it found a remarkably consistent pattern of stifled debate, with dissenting opinions and views having been discounted as unhelpful by those in charge.

Jim Collins, in Good to Great, says: “All the good to great companies had a penchant for intense dialogue. Phrases like ‘loud debate’, ‘heated discussions’ and ‘healthy conflict’ peppered the articles and transcripts from all the companies.”

These results are supported by a 2008 study by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development titled “Fight, flight or face it”. Statistics for South Africa are not available, but it is doubtful that the picture would be rosier. To manage differences effectively we must have the ability to manage three components simultaneously: the problem; the process; and the people issues.

Few people have the natural ability to manage all of these equally well: the more left-brain orientated types are usually able to focus very rationally on the issues – with facts, supporting arguments, fascinating statistics and powerful visual presentations. Very often, however, those at the receiving end grapple with issues ranging from fear, frustration, mistrust, emotional issues and the like, meaning that the rational message gets lost in translation.

Unless we are able to think rationally and also have the emotional intelligence – right-brain, bigger-picture capacity – to manage these “people” issues, sustainable “win-win” solutions will elude us. More often than not, it is the people issues that get in the way of wise solutions. This is where collaborative or joint problem-solving skills are critical, but mostly lacking at all levels in organisations.

For human resource professionals, this provides a golden opportunity to enhance their role and add value by acquiring and applying workplace mediation skills where managers are unable to resolve performance issues, less serious disciplinary issues, grievances, incompatibility conflicts and so on.

To become more “dispute wise”, a cultural shift is required that would make it more natural for employees to dialogue and problem-solve than to fight, and to see conflict as an opportunity for understanding, learning and collaboration. It is also necessary to develop a level of conflict “literacy” in the organisation, an understanding of what causes it, how it escalates and how it can be managed for best results, to build conflict management skills, to adapt internal procedures to conform to a more effective system for dispute resolution and create opportunities for early resolution and to “embed” a conflict management culture in the organisation.

It is not enough to simply develop protocols or systems and provide training. Conflict leadership is required to ensure that open communication and effective conflict management become part and parcel of the culture of the organisation at all levels.

* Professor Barney Jordaan is with Maserumule Consulting and is adjunct professor at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, where he heads the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement. The centre, which has Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu as patron, is part of Stellenbosch University’s Hope Project (www.thehopeproject.co.za), which creates sustainable solutions to some of South Africa’s and Africa’s most pressing challenges.

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