Managing workplace conflict: a legal and psychological perspective
For those of you who missed our workshop in August 2015 on workplace conflict, here is a summary of the key messages.
Effectively managing workplace conflict requires a degree of sophistication in approach if business is to harness the benefits of conflict and diversity. Employees and managers both need far more support in properly understanding and responding to conflict at work.
There is good and bad conflict
As Margaret Heffernan once said: “for good ideas in true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.” Conflict presents an opportunity to ‘air’ issues, strengthen relationships and develop new ideas. Don’t fear all conflict; embrace it.
Some conflict, however, is simply unhealthy. We all know the damage workplace conflict can cause to a business. Staff morale is low, productivity is down and absenteeism is high. Complaints of bullying and workers compensation claims all need to be carefully managed and present a distraction and cost to business.
What is conflict?
As Steven Booker, Psychologist, discussed at our workshop, conflict is a perception that differences cannot be resolved. Conflict is a psychological state involving a person’s beliefs, assumptions, biases and communication filters.
In a workplace setting, key conflict drivers are a person’s interpersonal style, thinking style, coping style and experience. Organisational factors also play an important role in conflict. Whether it is competition for resources, lack of strategic clarity or an unsupportive culture, all of these factors can increase the likelihood of conflict developing.
Another significant factor in conflict is perception. Mr Booker spoke about the ‘ladder of inference’. As humans, we form immediate perceptions of others and then view everything that occurs through that original assumption and perspective. Anything that occurs confirms our original perception and we may lack the necessary objectivity to question our original views.
Preventing ‘bad’ workplace conflict
Having a code of conduct and workplace policies (on bullying, harassment, grievances and dispute resolution), as well as providing training and education on appropriate workplace behaviours, are obvious prevention strategies. But is this enough?
Conflict management training is a good start. Training employees on resilience and having the confidence to have open discussions with others about concerns is fundamental to any relationship. Equally important is giving employees the tools to receive constructive feedback and to process that feedback with objectivity.
Managers need support as well. Managers need to be receptive and open to feedback from employees and learn how to become active listeners. Managers need to know how to positively communicate with employees. Management styles need to be reviewed and refined to align with best practice. Reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner may avoid a bullying claim, but may not prevent workplace conflict.
Business also needs to identify and predict when conflict is likely to arise. As the Fair Work Commission said in Applicant v General Manager and Company C  FWC 3940, a bullying case:
Workplace change is often difficult … [c]hange to reporting responsibilities can be very emotionally challenging for some … [s]enior managers have to accept the need for reasonable periods of adjustment and the need for support where employees have difficulty adjusting.
In managing any workplace change, planning needs to occur to minimise the prospect of conflict. Genuine consultation is an important device that assists in preventing and managing workplace disputation.
How should you manage conflict?
Ignoring conflict only risks it becoming bigger. Get your hands dirty and actively manage the conflict, giving all parties confidence in achieving functional relationships and resolution.
At the outset, it needs to be said that not all conflict necessitates management by way of an investigation, disciplinary action, warnings and dismissal. Such a process itself is adversial in nature and encourages further conflict. Perhaps avoid any policy or process being about the ‘complainant’ or ‘perpetrator’ but rather focus on supporting the ‘relationship’ and having ‘functionality’ at work.
Discussion, dispute resolution and mediation are obvious ways to resolve conflict early. Sometimes the engagement of a counsellor or organisational psychologist may assist in addressing underlying behaviours and providing tools to manage communication, understand perceptions and resolve conflict in the future. It may be necessary to disagree about the past but agree on the future.
Of course, some behaviour during a conflict may simply be unacceptable. Decisive action may be needed. It is legitimate to enforce the code of conduct. However, be cautious of behaviour due to mental unwellness. As the Commission said in Salazar v John Holland  FWC 4030:
It is neither sound nor defensible to rely upon the conduct of an employee with an obvious mental health problem in drawing a conclusion that the conduct of the employee amounts to serious misconduct.
Finally, if after genuine efforts have been made to resolve the conflict and restore relationships, or to move forward, but the conflict continues, then it may be okay to dismiss one or both of those in conflict, especially where the conflict becomes incapable of resolution and relationships are adversely affected: Lumley v Bremick Pty Ltd  FWCFB 8278.
Being able to manage conflict is probably one of the most important social skills we all need to possess in managing all our relationships, including at work. Unfortunately, we are brought up to avoid conflict and difficult discussions. In the age of collaboration and diversity there can be no more shying away from conflict and having those difficult discussions.
Authors: James Mattson & Deanna Oberdan