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Guide to Managing Conflict
Positive steps for managing and promoting a healthy workplace culture
A printed bound copy of the 'Guide to Managing Conflict' can be ordered for $15 or $10 each for orders over 10 by contacting Leadership and Management Development at email@example.com
The key to effective conflict management is timely intervention - to notice the signs and to respond appropriately. This guide provides:
Conflict occurs in every workplace. In university environments where ideas and innovation are valued and diverse groups and personalities work and interact together, conflict will also arise. Different needs, beliefs and views on how things can or should be done may arise within or across university staff and have the potential to lead to conflict.
Ideally, when such situations arise, people are able to engage in healthy and respectful debate and consideration of each other's viewpoints. When handled well, conflicting needs or beliefs can be an opportunity to deepen our understanding of issues, learn from others, and to develop more inclusive and creative solutions to problems. But if mishandled or left unattended resentments can build and conflict between people can get worse, leading to relationship breakdown and a range of significant human and financial costs. These include lower productivity, reduced morale and motivation, resistance, absenteeism, presenteeism, stress-related symptoms and staff resignations.
Monash values the ability to manage conflict, to deal with situations of conflict effectively when they arise and to create an environment where individuals are skilled and empowered to handle differences with co-workers in a positive and productive manner. This guide aims to help you recognise signs of potential conflict between staff and to give direction on how and when to intervene to produce positive outcomes and minimise the risk of negative effects.
This guide is intended for use in conjunction with training in managing conflict offered through the Staff Development Unit.
You are well placed to recognise the signs of potential or actual conflict between staff when you develop a solid understanding of the particular work habits and styles of communicating of your staff. This comes through regular communication and dialogue with your staff, and focused attention on how your staff manage their work and interact with each other.
When you engage in open and regular communication with your staff, a relationship of trust is built and an expectation can be established that concerns or difficulties with other staff need to be aired and worked through. You can actively encourage your staff to openly talk with each other about their issues. However, it is important not to assume that staff will always be able or motivated to work through their issues on their own.
If one or more staff members voice irritation or concern over certain actions or attitudes of other staff this is a direct sign that negative conflict may be brewing and needs to be addressed. While some staff will be vocal about their feelings and dissatisfactions, others may respond to negative feelings by withdrawal or avoidance. In such cases you may observe changes in an individual's behaviour or in the behaviours of others around them. The following are signs that may alert you to staff distress and potential conflict:
Conflict commonly occurs when people perceive that their needs are being thwarted by others or that their views and opinions are not being heard or valued.
The following are some of the primary causes of frustrated needs and discontent in the workplace that have the potential to lead to conflict:
Some of these causes are systemic. If systemic issues such as role ambiguity, limited information, or poor performance management are identified but not addressed the morale of a team can be lowered and individual staff can feel increasingly helpless and angry. This creates fertile ground for interpersonal conflict.
Workplace conflict can broadly be considered to fit into two categories, the first being "when people's ideas, decisions or actions relating directly to the job are in opposition," and the second being a situation "when two people just don't get along."1 The latter, often referred to as a "clash" of personalities, can be the most difficult to address, because strong emotions get mobilised based on negative perceptions about another person.
Regardless of the category, the people involved in unhealthy conflict often engage in hurtful interactions that become the focus of their attention and serve to further fuel the conflict.
When a personalised conflict is identified it is important to redirect attention and energy into specific issues relevant to the job that can be worked through, and to set clear expectations on acceptable behaviours and consequences for inappropriate behaviours. The earlier this is done the more likely that a positive outcome will be achieved, as personalised conflicts tend to get worse over time as each person looks for problems in the other and finds reasons to back up their negative perceptions. Alliances can develop in teams in support of one or other of the people in conflict which can lead to significant disruption.
The ability to recognise and acknowledge emotions in others is crucial to effectively managing conflict situations.
There are always emotions involved in conflict and these build in intensity and complexity the longer a conflict remains unresolved. Fisher and Shapiro (2005)2 identify five "core concerns" that reflect people's emotional needs. They are:
These core concerns provide a useful framework for identifying and understanding the issues and emotions experienced by people in conflict. This can lead to a greater level of empathy which in turn can stimulate more positive emotions and enable people to participate more constructively in working through conflict.
People have different styles in how they respond to conflict, and their styles can vary depending on their level of emotional investment in the issue at hand or their power relationship with the other party to the conflict.
The different conflict styles are commonly defined as incorporating concern for self and concern for others in varying degrees:
Each of these styles has advantages and disadvantages for the individual, depending on the context in which they are used. However, it is selfevident that the collaborating style of responding to workplace conflicts has the higher likelihood of producing outcomes for the benefit of all involved. People using this style assume a problem-solving approach, and actively aim to defuse negative emotions and find a mutually satisfying solution to problems.
People with habitual avoiding or dominant styles often antagonise others and produce further conflict by their manner of communication. People with a habitual accommodating style can frustrate others and develop feelings of resentment over the neglect of their own needs, which again can feed future conflict.
It is useful for staff and managers to develop an awareness of their predominant style of responding to conflict, and to recognise the impact of the different conflict styles on others. With practice and motivation people can learn to adopt and use new conflict styles according to the needs of the situation. Through counselling, conflict coaching or training in conflict resolution staff can be made aware of the characteristics of each conflict style and how each contributes positively and negatively to the course and outcome of conflict.
As manager you may note chronic low level disagreements where one or more staff are displaying signs of avoiding, dominating or accommodating behaviours. You should consider whether these are warning signs of potential conflict requiring intervention and support for staff.
When managers encounter disagreements or problematic behaviours in their staff they may assume the attitude of "it will pass" or "they're adults, they can sort it out for themselves". They do so at risk of minor disagreements or misunderstandings escalating over time into full-blown conflict, with negative behaviours that can affect a whole team.
"The key to controlling the cost associated with workplace conflict is to address disputes early in their life cycle before they escalate beyond an organisation's ability to effectively intervene."
Thomas, R. Conflict Management Systems: A Methodology for Addressing the Cost of Conflict in the Workplace, 2002.
Some of the negative effects of unresolved conflict are:
Timely intervention that is positive, inclusive and thorough has the following benefits:
Choosing not to intervene in a timely manner can make a conflict situation often more difficult to resolve in the long term.
By encouraging people to openly talk about their different views and disagreements in a calm and structured way a culture of positive conflict awareness can be created. In the university environment in particular it is vital that new ideas and fresh approaches to work are generated and explored by way of vigorous discussion and debate.
It is inevitable and desirable that different perspectives will lead to conflict at times, which can be framed as creative tension that requires resolution. If such conflict is poorly managed and consistently so, it can cause staff to feel there is too much risk involved in contributing new ideas to the team and they may disengage.
A situation can develop, in which staff opt for status quo thinking to minimise potential conflict and maintain group harmony. In such a group the lack of healthy workplace conflict can be the following negative effects:
The importance of early intervention: a model of conflict intervention
A key role of managers is to cultivate a safe and supportive environment in which people are encouraged to work constructively. Demonstrating and reinforcing behaviours that promote a healthy response to workplace conflict can greatly increase workplace harmony, strengthen relationships, improve team effectiveness and make being at work more stimulating and enjoyable. Efforts directed toward conflict prevention are the most effective way of ensuring against the negative impacts that conflicts can cause. From time to time, however, it is important for the manager to identify when a conflict requires more formal intervention (eg. sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination) and seek assistance at an early stage (see page 10 for details).
As a manager you can facilitate and support a culture of a healthy response to workplace conflict by the following actions:
The simple act of bringing people together to talk makes a big difference in the course of conflict. Monash encourages people to meet and talk with each other to resolve differences. The manager has a role in encouraging this, and can facilitate positive outcomes by providing staff with guidance on how to approach such difficult conversations.
When emotions are heightened people tend not to think as clearly as they normally would, and they can be defensive or fearful in approaching people they are in conflict with. It is useful to establish some simple ground rules for meeting together to work through differences. When all parties involved in conflict understand and commit to ground rules it provides a base of safety and increased clarity of purpose which can help people stay on track and keep their emotions in check.
Below are some basic ground rules for effectively communicating when in conflict. As a team building exercise you could encourage your staff to discuss these ground rules and to think of others that can be of use to them. It can be very powerful for a team to work together to develop and agree on a set of ground rules. It establishes a mutually understood framework and encourages shared responsibility for working through differences.
Some basic ground rules for effective communication when resolving differences are:
|Do I listen carefully without interrupting?|
|Do I show concern and encourage the parties to resolve the conflict?|
|Do I express empathy?|
|Do I ask open-ended questions|
|Have I acknowledged and validated each person's position/feelings?|
|Have I allowed sufficient time for each person to have their say?|
|Do I make sure i have heard the entire message before reacting?|
|Have I summarised each party's position?|
|Am I displaying impatience or defensiveness?|
|Have I dismissed the importance of the issue?|
|Am I judging the parties involved?|
|Do I deny the feelings of those involved in the conflict?|
|Do I argue or disagree with the feelings expressed by the parties involved?|
|Have I tried to solve the problem too quickly?|
|Have I assumed responsibility for fixing the problem rather than empowering those involved to generate their own solutions?|
|Have I approached the concerns objectively by looking at the problem not the person?|
|Do I show a genuine desire to understand the other person's point of view?|
|If the conversation gets heated, do I reschedule another time to talk?|
|Have I sought advice and assistance in dealing with the conflict?|
There will be occasions when staff are unwilling to meet alone with each other to talk through their differences, or their past attempts have failed. You may then need to directly intervene to assist and facilitate them in this process. There will be other occasions where you have observed early warning signs of unhealthy conflict and need to approach the
staff involved to find out what is happening and offer support.
The following model outlines steps you can take to intervene and facilitate conflict resolution between staff3, as well as when you are directly involved in conflict.
|1. Identify the issues
(Listen and summarise the key issues and concerns)
|2. Explore the issues
(Explore and acknowledge the needs, wants and interests of parties)
|3. Generate solutions and options
(Facilitate discussion toward mutual agreement and understanding)
|4. Make agreements
(Be specific about who, what, when, where, how)
Source: The LEADR model of mediation
NB: It is important to note that if you have identified that the conflict is the result of a clear breach of policy (eg. allegations of unlawful discrimination, harassment, bullying, racial or religious vilification or victimisation, conflict of interest) or that you don't have the necessary skills to manage it locally, seek additional assistance, advice and support as soon as possible (see page 10).
1. Identify the issues
2. Explore the issues
3. Generate solutions and options
4. Make agreements
Being personally involved in unhealthy conflict can be a very difficult and confronting experience. There is often the tendency to assert or rationalise one's position in conflict by virtue of one's management role. This should be avoided, as should the temptation to make decisions only because of a felt need to prove one's self or to show the extent of one's power. Recognising when you're involved in, or are the identified cause of unhealthy conflict, and engaging early intervention strategies provides the best opportunity not only for resolution but to ultimately reinforce your leadership position.
Important things to consider when you are one of the parties in conflict are:
Just as early intervention becomes a critical strategy in managing and resolving unhealthy conflict at a local level, so does recognising when to seek additional assistance. The following points are a useful guide for deciding when additional assistance is required.
|Nature of Conflict||Yes||No|
|Does the conflict involve a clear breach of policy eg: allegations of unlawful discrimination, sexual harrassment, bullying, racial or religious vilification or victimisation, conflict of interest?|
|Have I been unsuccessful in managing the conflict locally?|
|Is the conflict likely to escalate?|
|Do I have the skills to manage the conflict locally?|
|Is the conflict likely to escalate?|
|Do I have the skills to manage the conflict locally?|
|Is the situation having a measureable and increasing impact on work performance, productivity and interpersonal relations in the workplace?|
|Has there been an absence from work due to the conflict or could the conflict result in a WorkCover claim?|
|Is the conflict highly complex and/or involve a group of people?|
|Nature of Conflict||Resources|
|When the nature of conflict involves clear breaches of policy, eg. allegations of unlawful discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying, racial or religious vilification or victimisation, conflict of interest||
|When you have been unable to address the issues at the local level||
|When you have identified the risk of escalation and do not believe you have the skills or objectivity to
manage the conflict at a local level
|Where unresolved conflict is having a measurable and increasing impact on work performance, productivity and interpersonal relations in the workplace|
|Where there has been an absence from work due to the conflict or there has been another indication that this conflict could result in a WorkCover claim|
|When the nature of conflict is highly complex and/or involves a group of people||
Telephone: 9902 9918
Coaching, consultancy, advice & support in the following areas:
Telephone: 9905 6800
Telephone: 9902 9599
A professional, confidential and external counselling service available free of charge to Monash staff and their immediate family members. This service can be of assistance when staff are experiencing work-related and personal or health problems.
Provides advice and support in the following areas:
Telephone: 9905 6112
The Equity & Diversity Centre supports students and staff to reach their full potential by promoting inclusive practices across the University. Equity & Diversity provide conciliation/mediation services, including under the Discrimination and Sexual Harrassment Grievance procedures.
Telephone: 9905 5704
Health and Wellbeing offers internal services to students and staff in the areas of chaplaincy, counselling , family and child care advice, financial aid, housing advice and health and medical assistance.
Health and Wellbeing contributes to the University's goals by providing support and advice to students and staff on emotional, psychological, health, financial, accommodation, religious/spiritual, educational, child care and physical problems in order to enhance their academic performance and the University community life.
Telephone: 9905 3156
The Monash University Counselling Service provides a free, professional and confidential psychological counselling service to all Monash students and staff. The service also offers a fee-for-service, vocational testing and consultation service.
Telephone: 9905 3156
International trends emphasise the importance of developing a culture of care and concern that supports timely help-seeking behaviour and timely intervention, as well as providing at-risk students and staff with appropriate support and mental health services. Timely intervention can prevent the development of more serious illness and promote full recovery.
Safer Community resources and initiatives, aim to give staff and students confidence in recognising and responding to observable behaviours in a systematic way in order to prevent escalation to violence or other serious incidents.
Telephone: 9905 1599
Occupational Health and Safety is committed to working with the University community in the prevention of injuries and illnesses in the workplace, in compliance with occupational health and safety legislation and in the development of a proactive safety culture within the University in which conservation of the environment is actively practised. Their specific role is to initiate, develop and oversee the University's overall health and safety programs in consultation with the University community.
Telephone: 9905 1016
The Security Advisory Office provides high level specialist security advise and services to Monash and its individuals.
The Security Advisory Office strives to promote a high level of participation and awareness concerning matters of personal and organisational security in all sections of the Monash University community to help maintain a friendly safe and successful environment for all.
Telephone: 9905 3059
Team health assessment/diagnostic
Use the scale below to indicate how each statement applies to your team. It is important to evaluate statements honestly and without over-thinking your answers.
|Team behaviour||Score (1-3)|
|1. Team members are passionate and unguarded in their discussion of issues
|2. Team members identify one another's deficiencies or unproductive behaviours|
|3. Team members know what their peers are working on and how they contribute to the collective good of the team|
|4. Team members quickly and genuinely apologize to one another when they say or do something inappropriate or possibly damaging to the team|
|5. Team members willingly make sacrifices (such as budget, turf, head count) in their departments or areas of expertise for the good of the team|
|6. Team members openly admit their weaknesses and mistakes|
|7. Team meetings are compelling, and not boring|
|8. Team members leave meetings confident that their peers are completely committed to the decisions that were made, even if there was initial disagreement|
|9. Morale is significantly affected by the failure to achieve team goals|
|10. During team meetings, the most important-and difficult-issues are put on the table to be resolved|
|11. Team members are deeply concerned about the prospect of letting down their peers|
|12. Team members know about one another's personalities and are comfortable discussing them|
|13. Team members end discussions with clear and specific resolutions and calls to action|
|14. Team members challenge one another about their plans and approaches|
|15. Team members are slow to seek credit for their own contributions, but quick to point out those of others|
|Absence of trust||Fear of conflict||Lack of commitment||Avoidance of accountability||Inattention to results|
|4. ________||1. ________||3. ________||2. ________||5. ________|
|6. ________||7. ________||8. ________||11. _______||9. ________|
|12. _______||10. _______||13. _______||14. _______||15. _______|
|Total ______||Total ______||Total ______||Total ______||Total ______|
A score of 8 - 9 is an indication that the dysfunction is not a problem for your team.
A score of 6 - 7 indicates that the dysfunction could be a problem.
A score of 3 - 5 is probably an indication that the dysfunction needs to be addressed.
Description of team dysfunction
You are the Head of a large Department and have your own Resources Manager Jenny. Jenny has been your Resources Manager for 15 years and informed you earlier this year that she would be retiring in a year. You have decided to be proactive about succession planning and have promoted a younger staff member Sandra, who has worked in the area for two years, to take over Jenny's responsibilities. You have asked Jenny to mentor and support Sandra during her last year and provide a more detailed handover in Jenny's last two months' of work.
You have heard that Jenny has been voicing criticism of Sandra's background and experience to other staff. You notice that Sandra has appeared withdrawn and unhappy over the last few weeks.
What do you believe the key issues are?
Note that this question is designed to flesh out a range of possible issues. The actual issues would not be known until discussions with the parties had taken place.
How would you approach this situation?
What sort of things would you say?
What words would you avoid?
In discussions with your dean, it was decided that a course you are responsible for needs to be transferred to another department.
Some of your academic staff have held informal meetings to discuss their objections. They have told you, their department head, that they have severe misgivings about the move. They believe that the changes will erode the standards and the solid reputation of the department as they see this course as integral to the other courses offered in your department. Other academic staff have applauded the proposed change and see it as an opportunity to consolidate core departmental course offerings.
Staff meetings have recently become very negative, with overtalking, and snide and offensive remarks being bandied between staff. Two different "camps" appear to be emerging, antagonistic to each other's stated positions and actively lobbying for support from other quarters of the University.
What are the likely competing needs and underlying motivations?
What would be your first step?
What steps would you take to avoid escalation of the situation?
What outcomes would you like to achieve?
How would you ensure that you maintained your objectivity and impartiality?
What are the risks for your department and the University if the conflict remains unresolved?