Employers can take three simple steps to recognise and manage workplace conflict, the Comcare Conference in Melbourne has heard.
Mark Belanti, the director of work resolutions provider Carfi, told delegates yesterday that workplace conflict doesn't usually occur as a result of one incident, but rather a series of incidents or "disappointments" that a worker experiences with either another individual or a group of people.
A worker might, for example, fail to get a promotion, before receiving a low work performance rating a few months later, and then being refused permission to go to a conference with co-workers because of budget constraints, Belanti says.
The worker then becomes dissatisfied at work, and is more prone to conflict with a colleague or manager, he says.
At this point, the worker could start to withdraw and disengage and eventually suffer a psychological injury, which might lead to a workers' compensation claim.
What should you do?
Step one: engage
The first thing managers must do when managing conflict is to engage the workers they believe are involved in it, Belanti says.
Acting immediately and making contact with those workers is important "because conflicts don't go away", he says.
Unresolved conflicts "lie dormant for days, weeks, months, only to explode on another occasion".
"We need to nip these disputes in the bud before they escalate."
To engage workers, Belanti says, managers should make observations to them about their behaviour – such as they seemed "a bit disengaged" at a particular time – and ask them if they're okay.
"The objective of this is to commence the journey. [Issues don't] get resolved in one conversation, it takes a series of conversations," he says.
"If there's a few people involved in the conflict and you're going to engage them [all], I'd suggest you meet with them individually first to get an understanding of what the issues are before you try to facilitate a resolution.
"People often have very different perceptions of what's occurred and understanding these perceptions will help you focus on what's important to each of the people, and to find common ground."
It is also important that managers don't indicate a preferred outcome at this time, such as wanting workers to become more engaged with their roles, Belanti says.
He also says that in his experience, workers who make psychological injury claims as a result of workplace conflict "often don't feel that anyone's listened or done anything to resolve the conflict".
Step two: acknowledge
Sometimes resolving workplace conflict is as easy as providing a forum for people to express their views and be heard, Belanti says.
"Emotions should be expressed... Let [workers] exhaust themselves of that emotion," he says.
By sitting back and listening, managers demonstrate a "willingness to see [a worker's] point of view", and it keeps them "fully engaged in the discussion".
It also "brings about a quicker resolution".
Belanti says it is vital that managers acknowledge the difficulty of the issue by saying, "I know this is a difficult situation for you, and I know you want your relationship with that person to be different."
That is "quite a powerful statement", he says.
Step three: facilitate
When facilitating a resolution, managers should avoid judging who is right and wrong in workplace conflict, and instead focus on what is important to the people involved and what they need, Belanti says.
"Particularly commenting on these judgements of right and wrong... can escalate conflict very quickly," he says.
"The goal of conflict resolution is... to reach a solution that everyone can live with."
Belanti says the process involves negotiating and renegotiating what action will occur, and by who, and "reality testing what those options are".
"Finding common areas of agreement no matter how small they are... gives an experience of success," he says.
He adds that managers should take small steps, and avoid trying to "solve the whole problem" within the first session.
Further, if the people involved in the conflict "start freely negotiating between themselves", managers should let them.
"It's really powerful to let them work that out together," Belanti says.
"If they get stuck, that's when you take a facilitating stance and start to summarise what they've achieved so far and what agreements they've reached."