Workplace conflict management, insofar as it even exists in many modern workplaces, struggles with a range of harmful clichés and assumptions, received and unexamined “truths” that have taken on the power of aphorisms, with “everyone knows this is true” being the popular end of the debate. So we are told that the cost of unresolved workplace conflict can easily be measured, that existing disciplinary processes (around for decades) are tried and tested processes that will effectively manage the odd delinquent, that workplace conflict will always exist and that there is nothing that can really be done about this, that employees will perform best under strict control, that conflicts can be handled by the external consultants or the lawyers, and that management can simply budget adverse post-dismissal results into the normal expenses and that is all that is needed.
Disciplinary documentation is gathered together in a file of some sort and dignified by being called a “Disciplinary Code” or some such official sounding term, workplace conflict systems are normally reactive and a few months (at least) behind case law and dispute resolution decisions, and the entire process is managed by a reluctant and begrudging senior management and an overworked and often undertrained staff and external consultants, with no meaningful over-arching system or workplace conflict philosophy in sight. Involved or roped-in staff are assumed to know a bewildering and ever-increasingly complex range of conflict skills from across a variety of interdisciplinary fields, now and then (read once a year, or so) updated with a quick and arbitrary workshop on the current “HR” topic of interest. Rinse and repeat, and assessments and new plans are made on the basis of outdated metrics that are not in the business’s best interests.
The costs of unidentified and unresolved workplace conflicts Management’s general assessment, reflected in annual budgets, boardroom strategy sessions and HR policies, are often the seeds of these errors creeping into a business’s management of its workplace conflicts, and then becoming entrenched in existing policies, manuals and practices. Line items on a balance sheet reflecting retrenchment packages, sick leave data, CCMA awards, legal costs expended in dismissal disputes and so on tell a very small part of the real, measurable costs of unresolved workplace conflicts. Once management knows where these hidden lines run, the true costs of such unresolved conflicts will be seen clearly, often in a measurable manner, in indirect outcomes such as poor motivation, harmful power centres, gossip and misinformation sources, team underperformance, subtle acts of commercial harm, customer mismanagement and brand stewardship, mental and physical health influences on larger corporate projects, demotivation over extended periods, higher than necessary staff turnover (especially in key positions), a reduction in loyalty and brand adherence, an increase in petty to mid-range conflicts and uncivility, a deterioration or dilution of interpersonal respect and a long list of other important assets that management would prefer to have in good condition.
Visible and traditional workplace conflicts, such as disciplinary misconduct events, will always be a part of the working environment, and the effective handling of that as a relatively easily understood process with big, easily discernible parts and processes can be a topic for another day. What we are dealing with here are important but unresolved conflicts that lead to all of the abovementioned business costs, and more. Spirals of silence, silos of a reluctance to speak out or contribute, harmful power centres, toxic workplace cultures that work against the overall company and brand interests are all results of such unresolved conflicts, and they are extremely difficult to identify and eradicate. Employees will underperform due to anxiety, animosity, demotivation or simply not being optimally applied in their roles and still tick the “happy” box in an internal review or poll. And this puts senior management in an intolerable position: harm is being done to the company, but you cannot manage what you cannot measure or identify. This then inevitably leads back to a reliance on those outdated processes and outcomes.
Some changes of mind, some changes of strategies and processes
One of the very noticeable and heartening aspects of this debate around improved workplace conflict management is how easily these improved measures can be implemented. As we will see, it is often an upgrade of skill-sets and leadership approaches more than anything requiring large capital or even time expenditures. We can then assess this improvement process along two lines of enquiry, firstly by way of a few mind-set changes, and secondly by briefly considering a few practical measures that such an improvement would necessitate.
A: New leadership approaches to workplace conflicts
The unproductive clichés and outdated approaches we referred to earlier, can be improved on and replaced where necessary by the following management principles that will bring your team into alignment with modern best practices.
1. Accept that unresolved conflicts happen, that they are pervasive and very difficult to spot by the untrained eye, and that they are harming your business in significant ways. If necessary, have a brief workplace conflict audit done to give you the relevant levels of unresolved conflicts and its costs as they are found in your industry or even in your specific business.
2. Make the important mental shift from dealing with the symptoms of workplace conflict, such as absenteeism, productivity and underperformance concerns, poor discipline, polarization, staff turnover, low degrees of loyalty and goal coherence, extended disciplinary processes and related activities, post-dismissal disputes and a range of such conflict outcomes to where you can identify and effectively manage the actual causes of such workplace conflicts. This makes your efforts more efficient, more cost effective and you end up with better workplace conflict outcomes.
3. Integrate this management shift into the very fibre of your business. Stop seeing “HR issues” as a grudge expense, to be budgeted for and forgotten. Stop managing poor results and prevent tem in the first place, and understand the positive effects that are lost by poor workplace conflict management.
4. Upgrade the elected personnel that must drive these processes and bring you the measurable results from this modern approach to workplace conflict. Stop outsourcing important components of this process to outside consultants, and ensure a transfer of the majority of these conflict management skills in order for these processes to be handled effectively as an internal function, with only periodic upgrades, quality assessment and major conflicts to be handed to external experts. Such a period and process of transition can be handled as a once-off external expert, and managed and implemented in a period of a few weeks.
5. Teach yourself and selected senior management individuals and teams effective high-end conflict negotiation skills. This will have an immediate and measurable effect on the full spectrum of your normal operational functions and goals, including profitability, competitiveness, industry specific risk reduction, a reduction of wasted expenses and several categories of overhead expenses, improved team performance and a range of others. Learn to see all of these operational concerns as the dynamic flow and results of one crucial thing: human conflict. This will in itself start to remove and reduce productivity obstacles.
B: A few examples of practical modern workplace conflict processes and techniques
The following selection of cost- and time-effective management strategies and techniques that should be implemented in the modern workplace should illustrate how practical and feasible such processes and mind-sets are.
1. Retain such parts of your HR and disciplinary codes and process such as you may regard as necessary, but design a once-off integration of conflict management principles into such system, and then optimize that for processes and personnel. Use of the dispute system design mechanism is advised, which will ensure seamless integration of people, processes and equipment / technology.
2. Expand these workplace systems from mere punitive top-down control systems, meting out punitive push-pull results to an integrated system that will deliver the constructive results available from modern workplace conflict management. Understand that this is not a relinquishing of managerial control or efficiency, it in fact becomes demonstrably and measurably easier and more efficient to control and to drive productivity.
3. Human resources as a discipline in aid of management and its goals is going through meaningful changes and a complete re-thinking of some important traditional solutions. Many workplaces are still however running terribly outdated HR systems, specifically the workplace conflict and productivity aspects thereof. HR staff, especially those in senior positions, often initially view these upgrades as threats to their positions (which it is not) or extra work (which it is, but only in the beginning). This requires a very big but easily managed mind-shift by senior management. Spend a few hours with your chosen conflict expert and see what changes need to be implemented, what deliverables follow from these changes and ensure that transition.
4. Train yourself to start focusing on less of conflict avoidance or conflict suppression and more on conflict management, conflict resolution and conflict transformation.
5. Exchange outdated parts of your workplace discipline and productivity system that actually create and entrench workplace conflicts (such as unskilful disciplinary processes) with effective conflict management strategies such as early conflict detection, a mediation level for certain selected and industry-specific offenses and an added range of conflict outcomes that removes the need for litigation.
Given the interests and competing goals and interests at stake in the modern workplace, various levels of workplace conflict is ubiquitous and unavoidable. The vast majority of workplaces however still treat this fact by way of outdated and harmful methods, assumptions, processes and strategies. It has created a state of inertia that some find rather hard to escape from, despite clear and cost-effective benefits from a more efficient management of workplace conflict. Once the disadvantages and costs of non-existent, poor or inadequate workplace conflict management are understood though, the upgrade to these modern processes and strategies becomes an imperative, a necessary process that cannot be shirked. Once the new ways of assessing and managing workplace conflict is then accepted and implemented, everything about that process changes.
Effective workplace conflict management makes everything easier and more effective, even (as many report) more pleasant, rewarding and fulfilling for all involved. It is not a “soft” system, it is not “woke” or a compromise with mediocrity, it is all of the measurable benefits that flows from modern workplace conflict best practices.
REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READING
1. “Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa” by Andre Vlok (2022), published by Paradigm Media
2. Various articles on the Conflict Conversations blog, which can be accessed free of charge at www.conflict-conversations.co.za
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org for any further information)