Man in suit punching

Keep things cool when things get hot

A guide to better conflict resolution in the workplace.

Successful conflict management in the workplace depends initially on the attitude, understanding and skills for first-line managers and their willingness to respond to conflict. This is clearly not an easy task; the pace of modern business and organisational change, market and customer demands and the growing complexity of work roles and tasks mean that managers have to keep many balls in the air and need to be equipped with a large range of process and people skills.

Traditionally, managers have been trained and equipped primarily to deliver results around systems of 'performance management', and many managers feel some trepidation when they encounter employees with issues such as personal distress, mental health concerns, work-related stress, and of course, in the demanding area of conflict prevention and conflict de-escalation. The demands of our compensation culture add even more pressure to an already overworked and over-stretched management.

Conflict costs

Why should managers be especially interested in the prevention, management and resolution of conflict? The answer is basically that conflict costs - and its costs are not only significant, but appear to be growing. The irony is that conflict is the least costly problem to remedy. In the UK the government has repeatedly urged employers to resolve workplace conflict 'early and informally', in line with some of the best current practice cited from the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

The hidden price of workplace conflict for managers is the amount of management time (including that of senior managers and directors who may be called in) that can be tied up with complex 'people' complaints - valuable time and energy that would be better spent on work tasks or in creating improved quality or productivity. It has been estimated that more than 20 per cent of managers' time can be taken up with handling conflict or differences of one kind or another and, for some industry sectors this may be an underestimate.

In our experience, managers with the will, awareness and skills to defuse a difficult situation - before it escalates into a complaint - could deal with a large percentage of the workplace conflicts that are either eventually referred to professional mediators or that actually end up at formal investigations or before employment tribunals.

The first and simplest rationale for the manager to take conflict resolution seriously is that, by early and skilled intervention, managers can save significant costs and resources. This saving should be measured not only in financial terms, but also in preserving individual and team morale, well-being and work satisfaction.

Handling the anger

Anger is the one of the most disturbing of emotions to deal with, especially when it is directed at you personally. Angry or aggressive reactions in the workplace can come from any direction - from work colleagues, managers, clients, customers, suppliers or staff in different departments.

If you are at the receiving end of an aggressive outburst, it can be quite shocking and unnerving, and in these changing and stressful times it is most likely that you will have to deal with this sooner or later, if not every day. The question is: how do you deal with it and still maintain your professionalism as a manager?

When faced with anger in your private life, you may choose to react angrily yourself and just say what you want to say, but in the workplace you cannot do this. You need to find a way to respond to someone's anger that results in your remaining professional and respectful and, at the same time, enables you to defuse the strong feelings and manage the dialogue so that the interaction remains as constructive as possible.

Very few people are skilled at handling anger. Most managers handle it well enough, but some deal with it poorly and bluff their way through and hope for the best. Faced with anger, people tend to:

  • get angry themselves and retaliate;
  • go on the defensive and come up with excuses as to why they did what they did;
  • go off on totally unrelated, tangential stories about something or other;
  • blame someone else;
  • say nothing, look blank and hope it goes away.

Whatever the response, any of the above will most likely make the other person even more angry or frustrated, thus escalating the bad feeling and provoking even higher levels
of irritation and verbal aggression.

Most people get angry because they are upset about something. This is a very simple way to put it, but in many ways it is that simple. People get angry, raise their voices, and pump up their bodies in order to 'show you' that they are upset by something. Basically they want to be heard and they want some recognition of their upset. If they feel you are not listening to them or not understanding them, then they will 'up' their reaction and raise their voice even more so that you do hear them. Even worse, if they feel you are not 'getting' how upset they are, they will automatically increase their anger and proceed to threats or even the use of physical violence.

Fortunately, most aggression in work settings takes the form of verbal or indirect passive-aggressive behaviour. Physical violence happens, of course, and the figures show that such incidents are increasing, but thankfully it is rare for workplace disagreements to turn to actual physical aggression. Most people, when questioned about this, say that they more commonly experience verbal aggression or verbal abuse in their workplace.

Anger is an emotion, one of a range of human emotions. It is okay to be angry (as long as it does not end in harm to anyone else); it is not the end of the world. In fact, it is a fairly frequent and normal human response. The first thing someone wants you to do when they are displaying their anger towards you is listen and to understand.

They want you to understand what has upset them, so much so that they feel the need to shout and exaggerate the strength of their case in order to get their massage across. Unfortunately most people do the opposite when faced with anger. They try to stop the communication, they block it instantly and go into self-defence, which often means talking over the other person or raising their voices themselves, which, of course, only serves to escalate the aggression.

Clearly there are no set rules on how best to handle anger, but the suggestions given here (see box 'Skills to defuse anger or aggression') may certainly help to defuse a difficult situation quickly and respectfully.

Mind your language

At some point most managers will need to address the problematic and important topic of negative language. It is very easy for the conflict manager to get drawn into, or even sidetracked by, the language of negativity.

The technique of reframing damaging, negative or poisonous language in one of the most valuable communication skills a manager can master. It is all about transforming strongly felt - but highly judgemental - language that disparages or puts people down into something more positive and constructive. This is done by leaving out the negative words and putting the emphasis on the issue they are concerned about.

Almost everyone wants people around them to collude with them when they are talking about their negative feelings with someone else. We want people to aggress with us in our judgements about other people, no matter how true or untrue they might be. In our private life it might be acceptable to collude and say, "yes, so-and-so is awful", or agree with whatever is being said. But this is not acceptable or professional in our working lives and can have damaging effects. To maintain professional standards we need to manage our communications positively by reflecting back or acknowledging what the critical person is saying whilst reframing the negative or derogatory aspects of what is being alleged.

There is a fine balancing act for managers here. If you neutralise your language too much, then the speaker may feel you have missed the meaning. In such cases people will feel compelled to repeat the criticism because they will feel you have not understood them. On the other hand, if your summary of what they are saying is too negative or critical, you will lose rapport with the person being criticised, who will feel you are taking sides.

If this happens, that person will in turn be likely to react strongly and escalate the conflict.

The basic aim of the technique is to summarise the main issues in what someone is saying in such a way as to eliminate the negative, judgemental or irrelevant elements. It is a skill used all the time in mediation, and is one that managers can incorporate as a valuable tool for everyday conflict management.

Remember the purpose of your intervention as manager, is to encourage mutual understanding by clarifying the main issues involved and by helping people to move forwards. Reframing language can help you move forwards. People may never reach agreement on what happened in the past, but you can help them move on and agree on solutions or changes in behaviour for the future.

Watch your focus

Finally, beware of where you put your attention. The elements that get your attention are the ones that will grow. If you put most of your attention and energy into the negatives of a complaint, then you will get more of that, you will evoke more of the negative, the blame and the put-downs.

If you can remain professional and calm and clearly state the actual issues involved (rather than engaging with belittling, provocative, or tangential remarks), then you will be more likely to help people find workable positive solutions. 

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