Human resources and employee relations professionals are accustomed to dealing with the many and varied forms of conflict that arise in the workplace. Managers reach an impasse with one of their team, colleagues fall out and refuse to work together, or union reps and local managers stop communicating and a ballot for strike action ensues.
Conflict is a ubiquitous feature of modern working life and the costs associated with it can be eye-watering. According to the CBI, unresolved disputes are costing the UK economy a staggering £33bn a year, while CIPD research suggests that more than a third of management time is being spent managing conflict.
When disputes escalate and managers come knocking on HR’s door, the traditional response is to reach for the company’s grievance procedure. It’s seen as a safety net that gives people a process for raising their issues. It provides a comfort blanket, which in reality is an illusion of justice and a mirage of fairness.
These traditional approaches to conflict resolution are largely ineffective, and in many cases actually make the situation worse. The traditional grievance procedure does not facilitate dispute resolution – it facilitates dispute escalation. It is pernicious, adversarial, divisive and destructive. It is the antithesis of a person-centred, values-based approach.
When people are plunged into formal procedures they become defensive and combative. Warring parties dig their heels in and positions become entrenched. The fall-out in the business is huge – in terms of lost productivity, motivation and disengagement – and ultimately no one wins.
Moreover, this procedure does not reflect the values of the modern workplace. Instead it engenders a culture of fear, blame and avoidance. These are hardly the drivers of a competitive business and a strong economy; they are hardly the kind of values you would want on your lobby wall.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. There is a wealth of constructive, collaborative approaches available to help people make peace with each other. There are many alternative resolution policies, and new techniques, such as triage assessments, mediation and facilitated roundtable discussions that have had a real impact within organisations. We know that these approaches work – so why have organisations been so slow to embrace them?
Two factors are at play. First, HR practitioners are worried that, by working outside of formal procedures, the company could put itself at a disadvantage if the worst-case scenario arises and litigation comes into play. Second, we seem to have lost the ability to engage in the kind of healthy, cathartic dialogue that will help people get back on track. In an era where technology has become the default method of communication, it feels like we are afraid to sit down like adults, acknowledge our differences and sort them out face to face.
It’s time for HR to step up and raise its conflict resolution game. There is a real opportunity, right now, for the profession to be driving the development of cultures that promote and encourage healthy conflict, rather than harmful and dysfunctional disputes.
It’s about bringing dialogue back into the mindset of the modern workplace and helping to build the positive, lasting and resilient relationships that will help organisations navigate the unprecedented challenges they are now facing. It’s also about recognising the need to upskill line managers, who are on the frontline when disputes start to bubble, but often don’t have the confidence, the competence or the courage to deal with them.
Conflict isn’t something to be afraid of. Managed appropriately, it can be a powerful driver of growth, insight and innovation. Healthy, functional conflict is something organisations should be embracing, rather than avoiding. It’s time for a resolution revolution – and HR needs to be leading the charge.
David Liddle is the founder and CEO of mediation and conflict management consultancy TCM Group, and author of Managing Conflict (Kogan Page/CIPD, 2017)