Preparing your team for modern conflict
Conflict is an everyday part of the corporate environment. New challenges and developments in legislation, technology and production have brought about new forms of conflict, with new risks, new methodologies and new solutions to these conflicts. The post-pandemic world and economy has brought about new pressures, new expectations, new alliances, all of which may very well lead to an increase in conflicts old and new. The highly developed fields of academic and practical conflict resolution systems continue to bring us cutting edge insights and best practices in order to effectively incorporate the creativity that conflict can bring into our businesses… if we are open to those solutions.
THE EFFECTS OF CONFLICT IN THE WORKPLACE – A FEW CURRENT REFLECTIONS
These case studies, research and actual practice in the trenches show us some very valuable ways to improve our conflict confidence and our conflict competence. In South Africa however, we also find that workplace conflict, in all of its modern manifestations, are often viewed as an inevitable burden and cost, as something that should be endured and about which nothing really meaningful can be altered. In the process the employer suffers a double self-inflicted penalty – underestimating the risk and harm of workplace conflict, and also not incorporating the benefits of these modern workplace conflict measures.
Most current South African workplaces ignore conflict as far and as long as possible, using outdated, confrontational conflict management systems that cost money, destroy important relationships and are demonstrably ineffective. Involved personnel are often poorly trained in outdated systems, or not trained for workplace conflict other than the treadmill of warnings and hearings. Developing workplace conflict areas, such as diversity and gender concerns are either ignored or lumped together under the “disciplinary process”. Even legislative interventions, such as the recent compulsory Workplace Harassment Code are ignored or applied at a minimum level to reach minimum compliance levels. This reactive way of looking at workplace conflict will not survive the next few years. These conflicts are handled by strategies such as conflict avoidance, workplace cultures of silence and suppression, CCMA and Labour Court damage limitation and other unnecessary limitations.
Often such strategies begin and end with the outsourcing of traditional HR and disciplinary processes, which is both an abdication of managerial responsibilities and an opportunity lost as far as reaping the benefits of in-house conflict competency are concerned. In addition to these directly perceived risks and costs, the workplace often incorrectly measures or remains blissfully unaware of other less perceptible and bigger risks and costs such as staff turnover, loss of motivation, creativity and productivity, team obstacles that do not show up under conventional assessments, workplace sabotage, unnecessary litigation and so on. The solution is a simple two-step process: have a tailor-made workplace conflict system designed for your business, which could incorporate large parts of the existing system, and then coach selected individuals and teams in a process that fully transfers these skills internally.
This brings about cost-effective, urgent and measurable results across all targeted departments in your business. Our national conflict coaching programs show a general timeframe of between 2 and 6 weeks required for such a design and skills transfer. The end goals for management includes greater internal conflict competency, a reduction of risk and costs, an increase in leadership deliverables as far as productivity, creativity and profitability is concerned, higher staff retention benefits, especially in specialist positions, freeing up key personnel to get on with their primary tasks, and a reduction of certain functions which can be outsourced, limiting such events to the rare occasion. These measurable benefits far outweigh a simple argument about reducing the costs (in time, money and risk) of CCMA disputes. Let’s look at a few of these conflict coaching events and goals.
CONFLICT COACHING – A FEW EXAMPLES
Despite the ubiquitous nature of conflict, South Africans in general are not skilled in conflict management. Between violence, sulking and litigation we do not see too many other options open to us. Conflict avoidance, in its many forms, remains a popular strategy, even into senior management levels. An intense and focused conflict program hands selected individuals the modern tools of correctly assessing conflict causes and triggers, giving them the ability to face conflict head on, with confidence, and to bring about such results as may maximally benefit the company and its workforce. This approach does away with the binary options of management having to tolerate poor performance/ discipline, or dismissing employees as a conflict tool, with all the costs and risks that this brings about. It teaches such individuals and teams that dealing with conflict has nothing to do with compromise, that far from leading to a reduction in standards and accountability it raises those bars. Simply put, one of the most inspiring modern management assets is a team that is truly conflict competent and conflict confident.
Observed patterns in South African workplaces of all sizes and across industries show that potentially problematical conflict situations are at first minimized or ignored, and then escalated beyond what the evidence may bear out into and through the existing disciplinary processes, often with destructive results for all concerned. Trained management staff should be able to assess and identify such conflict causes and triggers long before they manifest in harmful or unproductive behaviour, and be able to apply a range of very effective interventions and remedies, such as workplace mediation or conflict management to such potential problems. It is also often observable that one of the benefits of this early-detection and expanded range of conflict options is a subtle empowering of employees even of a lower rank, with them learning (in an informal and non-judgmental manner) how to be better at their own conflicts.
We are best positioned to prevent, minimize or deal with a problem when we truly understand it, when we are able to proverbially take it apart like a clock. Modern conflict coaching will enable the included individuals and teams to for instance distinguish between rule based and relationship based conflicts and the different approaches and techniques that each require, it will enable individuals and teams to distinguish between and effectively handle fact based conflicts versus identity or value based conflicts, knowing that using the wrong conflict approach on the wrong diagnosis is counterproductive and harmful to the employer. Modern conflict studies and research also deal extensively with the effects of our neurobiological systems (see our recent article on this topic) and predispositions on our conflicts, making these events much easier to read and to manage using a solid scientific foundation for such programs. This has absolutely nothing to do with soft options or “being nice”, and everything with efficient modern leadership.
Effective conflict coaching will lead to better workplace relationships, which of course is a laudable goal in itself, but for the sceptic the benefits of better internal conflict assessment and management leads to bottom-line, measurable benefits, making such coaching even if for no other reason than that a justifiable decision.
Research clearly shows how unmanaged conflict often becomes unnoticed conflict. This is especially true in a South African context, where perceptions or racial or gender bias can often lead to smouldering resentment, demotivation, disloyalty, a reduction in creativity and productivity, and latent hostility. Such misdiagnosis, coupled with an overt or covert workplace culture where constructive dissent is discouraged or dealt with inconsistently, often leads to individuals and teams performing far below their potential, while everyone involved may be unaware of the problem, and at pains to assure everyone that all is well. Conflict coaching can identify and resolve these causes and triggers without escalating the conflict, and lead to individuals and teams reaching their full potential.
Effective conflict coaching brings about a range of new or better developed skills in the involved individuals, all of which can be used in other areas of their work. Such conflict coaching leads to better assessment abilities, better problem solving abilities, better listening skills, a much greater ability to “read” nonverbal communication, persuasion and transformational or inspirational skills increase significantly. All of these conflict skills are of immediate and lasting benefit to other workplace areas and tasks, such as negotiation, networking and many others.
Conflict coaching, as we have briefly dealt with above, has become a modern leadership and workplace imperative. If designed and implemented correctly, it is quick, cost-effective, measurable, transformative and transferable. To argue that workplace conflict can be outsourced, or managed as a cost centre, or that the current approach is adequate is to completely ignore or fail to understand the risks involved or the benefits that are available from such a conflict coaching system. We have yet to find a workplace where such a coaching system did not bring about meaningful and lasting benefits.
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org for a sources index, further reading, conflict mandates and coaching, comment or any further information)