WorkLife

Our thoughts on the world of employment law - and beyond.

Resolving conflict in the workplace

I am currently being trained as a facilitator in ‘action learning’ - a process which I am finding fascinating, particularly the psychology elements and how humans interact with one another.  The concept of action learning is to solve issues using a combination of insightful open questioning to challenge perceptions followed by reflection.  In a nutshell it is a ‘conversation with a purpose’.  The process involves allowing an individual to fully explore an issue, with assistance from the facilitator and the other members in the ‘learning set’ without immediately leaping in with a ‘this is what I would do’ (as a lawyer this has been one of the hardest elements to address myself!).  Its human nature to think that the way ‘we’ do things is the right way and many conflicts arise in the workplace when someone is not doing something ‘our’ way.  A lot of the theory behind action learning involves looking at the psychology of how we all ‘tick’.  In particular, how we deal with difficult and stressful situations. 

In the 50’s a psychoanalyst named Karen Horney identified that there are three main human responses (or coping strategies) to a conflict – against, away and towards.  Those with a propensity to ‘against’ will fight back against a perpetrator of conflict; as the name suggests those with a tendency to an ‘away’ response will seek to avoid the conflict and those with an inclination to a ‘towards’ response will attempt to come together and rally towards the conflict employing the help of the individuals involved.  Within any team environment, it’s likely that there will be a mixture of all three reaction types.  Identifying a person’s natural reaction type must surely help in managing relationships within the workplace?  Picture the scene of a stressful work situation which leads to a senior manager screaming and shouting at a junior colleague.  Whilst I am not suggesting that such behaviour is acceptable, as HR managers, if you can understand the individuals’ natural reaction (and in this instance the senior manager’s is ‘against’) this could go some way in building better relations.  At the end of the day, we are who we are and its unlikely that we can significantly change our deep embedded natural reactions.  That said, if the ‘against’ senior manager recognises that his natural reaction is one of lashing out then he may be able to address this or go some way to temper the reaction so it has less impact on those around him.

One of the key aspects of dealing with a workplace grievance is one which is often overlooked – demonstrating empathy.  If the complainant can see that the aggressor can demonstrate an understanding of his position, it can go a long way towards resolving the dispute.  All too often we see grievances where the positions of the parties involved have become so entrenched that we know the only outcome is going to be a settlement (with the parting of some cash) or a Tribunal claim.  In many situations, if the parties had been encouraged to come together and understand each other’s position a little better, some (but obviously not all!) conflicts might be resolved.  Almost exactly two years ago I wrote a blog piece about the introduction of ACAS early conciliation.  Looking at the latest published statistics – from April 2015 to March 2016 of all cases referred to ACAS, only 18% progressed to a Tribunal claim (17% settled by a COT3 and 65% did not proceed further).  Whilst undoubtedly the Tribunal fee regime will have had some part to play in the reasons why claims do not proceed, these figures surely suggest that there is merit in attempting conciliation at an early stage, in whatever form that takes.  If more of this approach could be adopted in the workplace (whether internally or by using external facilitators/mediators) conflicts might just be nipped in the bud.      

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