Managing workplace conflict – The importance of effective policies and support structures
A measure all organisations should implement to better manage workplace conflict is to have:
concise grievance policies and processes,
written in plain language,
that are regularly updated, and
emphasise a range of options and stages in the handling of conflict.
The setting of timeframes, defined roles and proper procedural fairness considerations are also critical from a risk management perspective.
Common mistakes that I have seen, especially in larger organisations, include: having too many policies and procedures that don’t integrate with each other (or other relevant documents); having well-crafted policies that aren’t readily accessible or even known of by staff; and, inadequate support from the organisation in their implementation. In fact having ‘supportive infrastructure’ beyond written policy is another key element in dealing with unhealthy conflict.
The best policies and procedures are also undermined if leaders and managers don’t model respectful behaviours and demonstrate that non-adherence to organisational values will have important consequences. The old saying goes that ‘the fish rots from the head’. Unfortunately not all organisations have a homogeneous set of leaders with the self-awareness, skills or perhaps willingness to set such an example. In this sense it is essential to build capacity and seek buy-in from your leadership cohort.
It’s desirable for everyone in an organisation to be equipped to manage conflict in a healthy fashion, especially when cost effective methods exist to both ensure familiarity with basic methods of dealing with conflict and to provide a shared language with which to have difficult discussions.
It’s important to recognise that human beings are complex and that organisations need to have other policies and procedures in place to address external factors that can often contribute to workplace conflict (e.g. mental health, family violence etc.). An initial measure to establish a base line, especially for smaller organisations without strong in-house capacity, is to have an external provider perform an HR Audit for you.
Even if you a junior manager, there may be things you have control over that can be explored to reduce potential conflicts in your team. A contributing factor in some workplace conflicts is a lack of role clarity. Questions to ask here include:
What do they think they should be doing?
What do you believe they should be doing?
What do others understand that they should be doing?
Closely aligned to this is whether there are clear reporting relationships? If the answer is no, you are setting yourself up for potential future misunderstandings.