Approaches to Resolving Interpersonal Conflict in the Workplace: an Overview for Managers

 


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Introduction

Because each of us possesses a unique set of personal characteristics, occasional conflicts of personality or interest with others are a regrettable yet inevitable fact of life. Furthermore, since we spend a large proportion of our lifetimes at work, often functioning under pressures and restraints that act as exacerbating factors, workplaces tend to become a primary site for inter-personal conflict. If such quarrels are not resolved in an equitable and timely manner, the resulting outcomes will typically be negative, not only for those directly involved, but also for co-workers and even organizations as a whole.

On the other hand however, both evidence and experience indicate that conflict in the workplace is often symptomatic of a healthy, dynamic and vibrant internal environment. Indeed, it is often said that a workplace devoid of tensions is in danger of becoming dull and stagnant, and therefore, is unlikely to foster any real sense of excitement, initiative or innovation amongst its constituents. In actuality then, conflict, if properly managed, has the potential to generate positive outcomes for all concerned.

If conflict is to be handled in a gainful manner however, it is vitally important that individuals and organizations develop robust strategies for coping with conflict in the workplace. This consideration is especially important for managers, whom are often required to handle conflicts, and for whom the sheer width, breadth, depth and frequency of interpersonal-interaction is often staggering. Therefore, in efforts to build a base of understanding, and with a particular focus on the role played by managers, let us now examine some of the core approaches employed in dealing with conflict in the workplace; namely: unilateral resolution, consultation, facilitation, mediation and arbitration.

Unilateral Resolution of Workplace Conflict

During the course of an average day a manager may be involved, either directly or indirectly, in a variety of interpersonal conflicts of varying intensities and foci. Not surprisingly, managers will often intuitively seek to resolve these disagreements by means that are primarily unilateral in nature.

In simple terms, a unilateral resolution revolves around efforts to resolve conflict via the application of influence or authority to one specific person, group, or faction involved in a dispute, and not to the other(s). For example, when dealing with a common workplace issue such as bullying or related misconduct, a manager might often respond, almost by way of reflex, by taking action upon the individual(s) whom are thought or evidenced to have been the instigators of the incident, while at the same time, giving little or no attention to those perceived as the ‘victim(s)’.

Unilateral resolutions are attractive simply because they seem comparatively quick and painless to a beleaguered manager: after all, it’s just a quick witch-hunt, a brief flex of managerial muscle, a few lashes with company policy and then on with the business at hand… right? Indeed, as a quick fix solution, few approaches can compare to the unilateral tack. There are however, a number of potential drawbacks that warrant discussion.

First and foremost, in the all too common event that no culpable individual(s) can be found, or more importantly, proven to be at fault, managers will find that all of their investigative efforts and best intentions have been for naught. Without a culprit, ideally one that can be proven to be at fault beyond reasonable doubt, the unilateral approach to conflict resolution simply does not work. There is also the very real potential that someone may be wrongly accused, by an over-eager or misinformed manager for example, or made a ‘scapegoat’ by their workmates. As a further consideration, even if a clear culprit can be found, punishing or disciplining the ‘guilty’ party is really only a ‘patch-job’, having little or no effect upon the underlying issues. Finally, unilateral resolutions largely ignore the role played by the other side in the conflict, which may leave them feeling neglected, or in some cases, feeling they have ‘gotten away with it’. This is dangerous because it can confer to such a party an enticing advantage towards engaging in the continuation and/or intensification of the situation.

However, all of these factors aside, research has shown that, while far from ideal, unilateral resolution is often a satisfactory method for dealing with trivial conflicts, wherein there is relatively little ego involvement on behalf of the disputing parties and relatively low levels of potential negative consequence. In the end though, it must be said that many attempts at unilateral resolution are impractical, irrational and biased in nature, and thusly, exist as a liability. Truly skilled managers therefore, should move beyond antiquated notions of the draconian manager exercising his/her might upon the whelps by raining down unilateral dictates; acting at once as judge, jury and executioner. In acknowledgment of these facts, when confronting conflicts within the workplace, alternative methods should always take precedence.

Consultative Resolution of Workplace Conflict

Personal achievement and satisfaction within the workplace, as with any other domain of life, owes a great deal to the reciprocal relationships we hold with significant others. Sadly, when things are going well, we seldom express our true appreciation for, nor even recognize at times, the pivotal role that others have played in our success. Only when conflict arises in the workplace do the relationships we hold with others come consistently into our field of focus, and typically for all the wrong reasons at that. When this scrutiny of interpersonal relationships does occur, individuals involved in a conflict, typically after the initial heat of the stoush has died out, will often opt to attempt some sort of consultative resolution on their own initiative.

When taking a consultative approach to conflict resolution disputants attempt to take responsibility for, and ownership of, their own disputes. In this style, disputants attempt to sort out their own conflicts in a reasonable and pragmatic manner, with those involved advising, negotiating and counselling each other towards either shared understandings, a practical compromise or, ideally but very rarely, outcomes that are desirable for everyone involved.

Resolutions of this nature would of course delight any manager, after all, its one less problem for you to deal with right…? In the real world however, anecdotal evidence and the weight of common sense tells us that the consultative approach is, at best, idealistic. Indeed, while fairy-tale endings have been known to accrue, we should be mindful that consultative efforts are equally as likely to result in frustrating stalemates or the rapid escalation of disputes. This does not mean that the consultative approach is without merit.

Consultation certainly has the potential to be gainful when employed as an early-intervention strategy, especially as it can sometimes circumvent an escalation of matters towards formal resolution procedures and the involvement of third parties, such as managers or consultants, thereby saving organizational resources and sparing those that would be required to intercede a great deal of stress and strain in the process. However, because consultative resolutions are inherently informal and unsupervised in nature, they can often run the risk of becoming a liability, unless all parties involved are sufficiently skilled in negotiation, interpersonal communications and operating from a place of rationalism and empathy. Certainly, providing that all of these prerequisites can be met by those involved in the conflict, there is some potential for positive results to accrue from the consultative approach.

Of course, unless a manager is actually one of the disputing parties, they will typically not be involved in the consultative resolution of conflict, nor perhaps even aware that there is a problem, or that an attempt at resolution is taking place at all. This might concern some managers, especially those predisposed to a more dictatorial style, in that they would find themselves firmly ‘out of the loop’. If one is to capitalize on the potential gains of consultative conflict resolution it is crucial that managers can take a step back and allow employees to attempt to work out their differences. This is not to say however, that a manager should take a ‘hands-off’ attitude to workplace conflict, but rather, that they should position themselves as a safety-net, always vigilant, available and prepared to intervene should things turn sour.

Resolution of Workplace Conflict Through Facilitation

Sometimes there is an obvious need for a third party to intervene in a given conflict, and more often than not, this responsibility falls squarely upon the shoulders of a manager. It is an unfortunate reality of the workplace that some matters simply cannot be resolved by the parties involved, and that these conflicts, if left unresolved, can tend to fester. When third-party intervention is required, facilitation will typically be considered as the first port of call, and if it is not, it certainly should be.

Often known as the ‘softly-softly’ approach, facilitation is a relatively informal approach in which a third party, preferably one respected by and familiar with the disputing parties, brings the complainants together for discussions in the hope of establishing mutually satisfactory resolutions. Typically conducted for best effect on a relaxed and neutral stage, perhaps over drinks, or coffee, or at lunch, facilitation is most effective when the third party effectively elicits forthright communication between all the disputants. At times, a facilitator may be required to play referee, insofar as assuring that everybody has the chance to speak their mind, make their case and be heard. It is important however, that the facilitator does not overplay their role in the proceedings, remaining always a background character that stays as neutral and objective as possible.

Facilitation is a strategy for conflict resolution that is most potent in the early-stages of conflicts. Due to its informal air, facilitation need not cause disruption in the workplace, nor discontent amongst the parties involved, whom might well feel otherwise intimidated or embarrassed if called to account under a more formal context. Employed typically for fairly minor or mild conflicts, facilitation can be an extremely useful approach for a manager, whom sometimes might have to do as little as get the parties together and lend his/her presence to proceedings. Certainly, early informal interventions into conflicts, such as facilitation, should always be the first response to the identification of a potentially serious workplace conflict.

On the other hand, as with all approaches, there are issues revolving around facilitation that should concern a manager. Firstly, there is the very real potential that disputing parties may agree to meet, or even accept certain resolutions simply because of the involvement of the third party, whom can often unwittingly intimidate or guilt-trip disputants, even by just being involved. Also, half hearted agreements can often arise out a simple desire, on behalf of the disputants or facilitator, to escape the situation as expediently as possible in order to get on with other business, or for fear that other unwelcome issues and secrets might come to light during the process.

Mediation of Workplace Conflict

Having established that third party conflict interventions are an unfortunate reality of the modern workplace, there are times when the subtlety of facilitation simply isn’t enough. When matters escalate towards disaster, or when pressing conflicts arise that are unlikely to be resolved in a timely manner by gentler means, a stronger and more involved stance may need to be adopted by a concerned third party. This is the point where the potential facilitator, intent on guiding and aiding in a resolution, must become a focused and driven mediator.

Mediation is defined as a formal process of negotiation conducted in a controlled environment through which an impartial third party, ideally someone with no inherent decision-making power in regards to the matter, takes an active role in guiding disputing parties towards voluntarily settlement of a dispute. As with facilitation, this is achieved by opening up the channels of communication and encouraging cooperation and compromise between the parties involved. Unlike facilitation however, mediation involves the third party being responsible for the establishing and enforcing of ground rules regarding the negotiations, assisting in the articulation of the various positions held by those involved in the argument and, in most cases, the provision of their own informed, objective and impartial recommendations.

It is wise to select a mediator that is not directly involved with the parties in dispute, and never someone with whom the disputants may have a personal relationship. Because of this, it is vitally important to exercise caution when using an internal mediator, especially if that mediator could be perceived as biased. If you are intent on settling a matter internally though, a relatively independent mediator may be able to be sourced from another department/branch/division. Of course, the easiest way to avoid these pitfalls is simply to bring in an independent mediator. Indeed, there are many private organizations and governmental bodies that offer highly skilled professional mediators for just such purposes.

Needless to say, properly conducted mediation, executed from a position of neutrality by suitably skilled and experienced mediators, exists as a powerful tool for resolving conflict in the workplace. Evidence suggests that, when mediation does work, it tends to produce enduring resolutions that involve minimal damage to the ego or interests of those involved and minimum potential for negative ‘spill-over’ in the workplace. Mediation is therefore widely regarded as an excellent means for resolving serious and pressing workplace conflicts. Regardless, it is worth noting that the process of mediation can consume enormous amounts of time and organizational resources, and thus, should be entered into only after conducting a cost-benefit analysis or a similar evaluation process.

Resolving Workplace Conflict Through Arbitration

When all other avenues of resolution have been exhausted, and when everything has come to naught, a legally binding solution to a particularly troublesome conflict may be suggested, or demanded, as the only way forward. While typically held as a last resort, a formal process of arbitration should always remain an option.

Arbitration is a formal process in which a third party, or occasionally parties, mutually agreed upon by the disputants or appointed by a suitable authority, renders a rational, legally-binding decision based upon the interpretation of the available evidence. The arbitrator(s) make this ruling after a formal hearing that generally involves the presentation of evidence and oral arguments in a style befitting of standard court proceedings. While relatively few workplace conflicts find their way into a court, or board of arbitration, in the most serious of disputes, lawyers or similar agents of representation will often be solicited by the disputing parties.

As already stated, the results of arbitration are legally binding, and whilst they may be appealed on sufficient grounds, the ruling is intended to provide robust resolutions that are enduring. Because of its litigious nature, the arbitration process holds great power as tool for conflict resolution and is doubtless an effective system for resolving disputes. However, there are some serious risk factors that can arise.

Foremost, arbitration presents a considerable risk of generating undesirable attitudinal and behavioural reactions on the part of the disputing parties. Regardless of how well it solves the immediate reality of the problem, arbitration rarely remedies the underlying issues. Because of this, arbitration can often distance and agitate the opposing parties, sometimes inducing them to increasingly perceive each other as self-interested opponents involved in a battle of wits and wills. This is never productive for a working relationship, and if the disputants are to go on working together, it can be potentially disastrous. Given these concerns, arbitration should be employed only in particularly troublesome or lingering conflicts and only after other approaches, such as facilitation or mediation, have failed to achieve a satisfactory resolution.

Conclusion

This paper undertook a critical examination of five core approaches to the resolution of conflict in the workplace: unilateral resolution, consultation, facilitation, mediation and arbitration. Whist this information is invaluable for everyone involved in employment, from the point of view of a manager, understanding these varying approaches to conflict resolution, and their respective strengths and weaknesses, is absolutely crucial to their proper application in practise. In the final analysis, the implication for managers is that conflict is not necessarily counterproductive, but the inability to resolve conflict definitely is.

Arron Stewart Is 26 years old, lives in Hamilton, New Zealand, and attends the University of Waikato as a graduate student in Sport & Leisure with an additional focus on Sociology and Human Resource Management. A website has been established featuring more information and selected articles of his work: http://www.geoci/arron_stew_79

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