Conflict at work

Conflict happens in all organisations, to some degree or another. Wherever there are people, there are diverging views, approaches and thoughts and the workplace is no different. Whilst steps can be taken to prevent or minimise it, the chances are that it is something that every organisation will need to deal with at some point. This is why we have formal procedures.


We are often asked to help organisations deal with conflict, whether it is between two colleagues who have a personal disagreement that spills over into their work or between two Directors which can threaten the very future of the organisation.


When conflict arises, those within the situation fix their positions quickly : “this is what I think and this is what I want”. When strong emotion is involved, it is all too easy to see only one point of view: our own.  Our cognitive biases kick in.  We want to be right.  Often, those involved in the conflict seek support.  They talk to others, put their point of view.  They are seeking to have their positions and their feelings validated.  If this isn’t quickly addressed, the conflict can then spread, impacting other employees and even the organisation itself.


The challenge with the traditional grievance procedure is that effectively, one person ‘wins’.  The hearing manager has to make a formal finding.  They either agree, or they disagree.  Little room for middle ground.  This leaves one person feeling like they have lost.


Put all of these factors together and you have a toxic mess.  Relationships can be damaged to a point where they cannot be repaired.  The emotion lingers on long after the formal processes have been concluded.


We’d take mediation over a grievance procedure any day.  It is however not an easy option.  The parties to the conflict have to get in a room and deal with it.  They have to be prepared to say the tough stuff – directly to the other person.  Emotions often run high and it takes much longer than a grievance hearing will.  Going into mediation does require bravery.  It requires people to put aside their need to be vindicated for the possibility of a long term solution.


All HR people have to manage conflict at work. It is part of the job description.  After many years of doing so I have learned that there is no one best way of dealing with it.  Each situation needs to be managed according to its context and the needs of the individuals within it.  But there is one thing that I do know.  However you think best to approach it, do it quickly.  Don’t let conflict linger.  This is how it spreads, this is how it impacts upon other employees, and this is how it infects your organisation.


Adult to adult conversation is the key – as soon as the issue arises.