Dealing with conflict is part and parcel of everyday working life for HR professionals. Managers fall out irretrievably with one of their direct reports. Personality clashes between colleagues get out of hand, to the point where the warring factions are unable to work together successfully. Communication breaks down between management and the union, leading to a deadlock in negotiations.
When disputes escalate and managers come knocking on HR’s door, the usual response is to reach for the company’s official grievance procedure. It provides a vehicle through which issues can be raised and dealt with, and ensures that if a situation turns really sour, the business can demonstrate it has acted fairly and appropriately.
In a new book ‘Managing conflict’ (Kogan Page/CIPD), however, workplace resolution expert David Liddle argues that this approach isn’t actually serving organisations well. His view is that while formal processes have their place, these traditional approaches are largely ineffective, and in many cases, can make the situation worse. They plunge people into adversarial situations, where they become defensive and dig their heels in. Positions become entrenched and ultimately, there are no ‘winners’ – certainly not the business, which stands to suffer enormously in terms of lost productivity, motivation and disengagement.
What we need, says Liddle, is a shift towards more constructive, collaborative and compassionate approaches to managing conflict – together with the development of cultures that promote and encourage healthy conflict, rather than harmful and dysfunctional disputes.
Given the stories of harassment, inappropriate and unethical behaviour that now seem to be hitting the headlines on an almost daily basis, the questions the book raises couldn’t be more apt. And of course, the issue is wider than just the high-profile cases that we get to hear about – a CIPD report suggests 4 out of 10 employees in the UK has experienced some kind of interpersonal conflict with the past 12 months. It’s a costly business too, with the CBI estimating that unresolved disputes are costing the UK economy a staggering £33 billion a year.
There’s an interesting debate to be had about why organisations have remained so wedded to their traditional dispute resolution procedures, when there are now a whole range of tried and tested alternatives (mediation, dispute triage assessments, facilitated round table discussions to name just a few).
In the book, Liddle suggests that two key factors are at play. Firstly, HR practitioners are worried that by working outside of formal procedures, the company could put itself at a disadvantage if the worst-case scenario arises and litigation raises its ugly head.
Secondly, is the fact that we appear to have lost the ability to engage in the kind of healthy, cathartic dialogue that helps people sort their differences out. You know, that old-fashioned technique, known as ‘sitting down and talking to each other’. There’s no doubt technology has had a role to play in this, making email, messaging and texting the default mode of communication and pushing face-to-face conversations into the background.
It feels like this is an issue where there’s a real opportunity for HR to take the lead – and to help deliver the ‘resolution revolution’ that Liddle is calling for.
Developing new processes and policies is part of the picture, but the profession can also do much to help build understanding within the business of why conflict arises and how to stop the kind of healthy, functional conflict that’s important for growth and innovation tipping over into harmful, dysfunctional behaviour.
There’s also an important job to do in upskilling line managers, who are expected to build and maintain good working relationships within their teams – but who are rarely given the training to equip them to know how to manage disputes when they arise.
What we need to do, argues Liddle, is start embracing healthy, functional conflict, and stop trying to push the kind of harmful disputes that are often rampant in organisations under the carpet.
What’s your view?