As a litigator and as a mediator, I have frequently seen workplace conflicts that have escalated beyond repair. Once a manager is convinced that an employee cannot perform, it is hard to change that manager’s mind. Once an employee believes that a manager or co-worker has engaged in harassment or discrimination, there is little likelihood of salvaging the relationship. An amicable parting of the ways is usually the most that a mediator can hope for.
This was one reason I moved from practicing law into Human Resources—I wanted to move further up the process of managing workplace problems, with the hope of fixing more of them. To some extent, I was successful. But unfortunately, I found that Human Resources comes with its own baggage. Too often HR is seen by employees as in management’s pocket and by management as ineffectual or not focused on the bottom line.
Nevertheless, I came to believe that the best chance of solving workplace problems is with direct communication between managers and employees, with HR serving primarily as a coach for both parties and a referee when emotions run too high or one party or the other steps out of bounds.
But both managers and employees often do not have the communications skills needed to resolve their conflicts. A recent article on Mediate.com, Integrating Conflict Management and Workplace Mediation Practices: A Blueprint for Future Practice, by Daniel Dana, Craig Runde (February 2015), makes this point.
Messrs. Dana and Runde suggest that mediators learn to coach their clients in how to manage their differences. The skills needed, they say, include expanded self-awareness, enhanced emotional intelligence, and improved conflict communications capabilities. Here are their suggestions:
Expanding self-awareness is typically approached by coaching, interviewing, or using assessment instruments such as the Conflict Dynamics Profile or the Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Instrument. When people become more aware of how they typically respond to workplace conflict, they are better able to employ constructive approaches and avoid defaulting into destructive or ineffective ones.
The human experience of conflict is replete with complex emotions, and helping clients learn to manage those emotions is of great importance for conflict management practitioners. This includes improving awareness of what triggers one’s negative emotions in the first place and developing personal practices for managing those emotions and regaining a sense of balance.
Enhancing constructive communications involves learning about one’s behavior patterns and working on lessening the use of habitual destructive behaviors. Those habits often escalate or prolong conflict. Improved patterns increase the use of constructive responses, which clarify issues and develop sustainable solutions that benefit both parties.
Yet Dana and Runde recognize that coaching alone will often not be enough to manage workplace conflicts. There is still a role for neutral third parties—either internal or external mediators.
Again, following the principle that resolving a conflict sooner rather than later is the best way to preserve a workplace relationship, then internal company mediators serve an important role. But bringing in an external mediator is more effective than litigating a dispute.
What has your experience been with resolving workplace conflicts? Can people learn to handle most conflicts themselves? When is a third-party essential to resolving the dispute?