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How to dampen the conflict tinder box in lockdown

Workplace conflict can bubble to the surface even when working at home.
Photo: Shutterstock

Team spirit is under strain as winter comes on amid a new lockdown. Employers need to implement new strategies to limit the risks of growing volatility, writes David Liddle, because the old tried and tested ones just won’t do anymore.

Virtual working is once again becoming the norm, as we move into a second lockdown, and a challenging winter stretches out ahead. But while widespread working from home brings many benefits, it also presents managers with challenges – not least the task of maintaining a happy ship in hybrid teams where employees are distanced from the camaraderie and support of their colleagues.

As many managers will attest, the team spirit of the early days of lockdown very quickly started to break down once the realisation that we were in it for the long haul set in. The reality is that workplace conflicts, complaints and concerns didn’t stop back in the spring; they were simply put on hold.

Those niggling issues between colleagues and managers have been bubbling away ever since and are now starting to rise to the surface. And if the mediations passing through our doors at TCM Group are anything to go by, these workplace issues are more intense, more ferocious and more damaging than ever before.

It’s not hard to understand why seemingly minor issues are increasingly escalating into major meltdowns. Employees are anxious about their jobs, their health and their families. They are having to work in new ways, often in less than ideal settings, while constantly adapting to changing priorities.

When people are stressed and working in volatile, uncertain circumstances, emotions become heightened, irrational behaviour starts to emerge and anger is never far from the surface. It’s a tinder box situation – and employers can’t afford to ignore it.

Out with the old

When situations become heated, there is a tendency for managers and colleagues to head straight to HR, demanding that formal disciplinary and grievance or bullying or harassment procedures are invoked.

The problem is that this approach nearly always makes the situation worse, forcing already stressed people into damaging, divisive processes and taking up time and resources that would be better spent elsewhere.

These outdated procedures infantilise the workforce, pushing people into an unhelpful right/wrong, win/lose mindset and making it unlikely relationships will ever be restored. They provide a mirage of justice and an illusion of fairness – and they are the last thing anyone needs at a time when if organisations are to survive, let alone thrive, they need people to pull together more than ever before.

If the mediations passing through our doors at TCM Group are anything to go by, these workplace issues are more intense, more ferocious and more damaging than ever before”

In with the ‘new’…

Over the past six months, the UK has seen the adoption of new working practices. We now need to urgently establish parallel methods of dealing with the way we handle conflicts, complaints and concerns.

Firstly, we need to stop being afraid of conflict and find ways to embrace it. Healthy, respectful debate between colleagues will produce the innovation organisations need to get them through Covid chaos.

At the same time, we need to completely reframe the way we resolve the difficult situations that crop up in everyday organisational life: the spats between individuals, the complaints about managers or colleagues, the concerns over performance issues.

HR needs to put a roadmap in place to help the organisation shift from grievance to resolution and to give managers a clear steer on how to manage issues quickly and effectively so that everyone can get back to what really matters.

This calls for a focus on organisational values that makes it absolutely clear how people are expected to behave and what they should take into account when making decisions.

It means developing transformational cultures, where employees are treated with compassion and respect and everyone feels able to speak up about issues that are concerning them without fear of blame or retribution.

Above all, it means taking an resolution first approach to conflict of all kinds, sorting issue out through open, honest dialogue and if that fails, through constructive collaborative approaches such as facilitated conversations and mediation.

Managers will need training to help them do this – recent CIPD research has shown that many lack both the confidence and competence to manage conflict effectively.

Tackling conflicts, concerns and complaints online

Will this work in a blended working environment, where for the time being at least, managers will rarely get to see their people face-to-face? Our experience is that if managers are competent, confident and courageous, they can take those skills successfully into the virtual space.

Outdated procedures infantilise the workforce, pushing people into an unhelpful right/wrong, win/lose mindset and making it unlikely relationships will ever be restored”

It’s about looking out for a tense atmosphere in virtual team meetings, for example, being aware of the subtle verbal cues and body language that signal all is not well, and taking the time to be curious and engage with people one-to-one in genuine dialogue.

Taking mediation – by its nature a very personal process – into an online environment may seem counter-intuitive, but in fact there are many advantages to handling issues in this way.

People who may have previously been reluctant to come face-to-face with someone they feel has been bullying or harassing them are often more willing to engage in mediation in the psychologically safe and socially distant space that is available online.

When powerful emotions or power differentials are at play, it can often feel less intimidating for the parties involved and helps them feel a greater sense of autonomy and control over the process.

In the undoubtedly difficult times ahead, HR needs to be courageous in stepping away from the safety net of formal procedures and embracing approaches that have dialogue and compassion at their heart.

Organisations who take this step will be better placed to cope with the challenges of the pandemic and to come out the other side future-fit and in good shape.

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