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5 Tips for Negotiating Workplace Conflicts

Whether it resulted from a professional disagreement, tone of delivery, or other reason, workplace relationships can deteriorate quickly resulting in gossip, formal complaints with deleterious consequences, such as the creation of a toxic workplace environment resulting in skilled, good people resigning and submitting claims (i.e to Workcover or an Industry Commission such as the Fair Work Commission).  

While some degree of conflict in the workplace will always be inevitable, the key to maintaining a cohesive and high-performing team is to know how to manage it so that everyone involved can remain focused on their performance despite their differences.

Here are five tips to help you effectively negotiate workplace conflicts to achieve better outcomes for everyone involved.

Tip 1: Define your role?

The first integral element of successful dispute resolution is:

  • That you understand what your role is in the dispute.  Are you there to facilitate a negotiated outcome with the parties?  Or, provide guidance around process? Or are you there to make decisions about which version has more weight and determine what further action (if any) is appropriate.  Or are you just ‘get me some popcorn’?  Understanding your role will provide you with guidance about what your responsibilities are, and determine what process is the most suited to manage the conflict.

One of the most common conversations we hear from an employee is, ‘I told them and they didn’t do anything’.  In response, the employer often says ‘they told me, but they said not to do anything’.  If you are in a leadership role, depending on what is disclosed, you may be compelled to act on what an employee says, despite their request not to.  If you don’t you could put them, others, and yourself at risk of further harm and breach your own policies and procedures and even external laws. In addition, you could be contributing to a culture of gossip (which now constitutes bullying) if you entertain conversations that diminish a co-worker.  

If an employee or co-worker complains to you, you should ask yourself three questions.

  1. Do you know what their expectations of you are? (ie; what do they want you to do and can you meet those expectations?)
  2. What outcome are they seeking?
  3. What process is best suited to address the concerns raised?

Once these three things are clarified then you will be able to determine what intervention will be best.  

Tip 2: Define the problem?

Conflict resolution in the workplace starts with understanding exactly what the issue is.  Often we get this wrong and implement the wrong strategy to deal with it. For example; David complains to you that he does not like the way a co-worker speaks to him.  He says to you, Robert is so rude and dismissive. He feels undermined and that nothing ever happens to Robert, and there is no point in complaining. You ask him what he wants, and he says nothing and that he just wants to vent to you.  You ask him if he has spoken to Robert, he says that he has on multiple occasions and he gets better for a short time and then reverts back to his bad habits. David says that he has been having some personal problems at home and that normally he could deal with Robert’s attitude but lately its’ really is getting on his nerves.  

What is the problem?

  • Does David need to build his personal resilience?
  • Does Robert’s behaviour need to be managed?

You can see that defining the problem results in two potential areas, resulting in two different methodologies to deal with them.  To build David’s personal resilience you might refer him to an Employee Assistance Program, or offer coaching, perhaps some team building, and/or he might need some time off to deal with his personal situation. Maybe you decide to act on both identified problems.  Is Robert’s behaviour serious enough to warrant a formal investigation, or perhaps David and Robert could sort out their issues in an informal workplace mediation? Will someone internally facilitates this, or will you use an external provider (such as us at Emverio Workplace Solutions)?  If you don’t know, look to your policies and procedures, scan the Fair Work Commission and Fair Work Ombudsman’s website,  consult your human resource business partners, or alternatively call us to assist you to work out the benefits and risks of the different interventions.  

Tip 3: Administer the Process

Once you have determined what process is best to use then it is time to advise everyone and let them know what you are going to do about their complaint.  If you are going to do nothing, for example; you might decide, that Robert’s behaviour is within the expectations of your team. That sometimes he can be short with people, he is busy, and that sometimes he can be direct.  However, that none of this is a breach of your expectations or internal policies/procedures. Best practice requires that you communicate this to David. Many times, where you decide not to do anything with regard to Robert (or the complaint about example) managers overlook communicating this to the person who complained to them (David).  Often this leaves the complainant with the view that nothing is being done, when in fact, it’s not being done because, in your view, Robert hasn’t done anything that warrants it. It is important that this is communicated to David and perhaps offer him;

  • EAP support
  • A workplace mediation
  • Coaching
  • Training

It is also really important to put in some review points.  That is, schedule some time to check in with David about whether his workplace relationship with Robert has improved.  And, lastly but most importantly, capture your thought processes in writing in case you need to explain why you took the action that you did.  We recommend that it is a good habit to email yourself and then save that email in a folder. Emailing yourself gives you a time-stamped contemporaneous note on what happened, and it holds weight if you have to rely on it in the future.

Tip 4: When to Mediate

Workplace mediation is a good alternative to a formal process.  However, the parties need to embody certain characteristics for it to work. The three main characteristics are;

  1. They both love what they do
  2. They both want to stay in their jobs
  3. They are both committed to working through the problem

Workplace mediation is appropriate where the parties have to work together moving forward, one or both have requested it, and where the complaints are not serious enough to warrant a more formal intervention like; disciplinary action, investigation or performance management.  Often workplace mediations, particularly ones where you have engaged an external mediator, are the last chance for participants to demonstrate that they have the skill to resolve their conflict. If the mediation fails (parties are unable to reach agreement) or the parties are unable to keep their commitments, then you will need to consider more formal interventions in line with your policies and procedures.

Even though workplace mediations are informal, make sure you formalise any commitments reached in writing for clarity.  And, that there is a process post-mediation to keep both parties accountable to their commitments.

Tip 5: Intervene as early as possible

It’s also important you intervene as early as possible. If initial attempts to resolve an issue have been unsuccessful, make sure you don’t let the issue fester.

By choosing to ignore an issue, it’s likely it will continue to escalate to a point where it can be difficult to achieve a positive outcome for all parties involved. If you don’t have the conflict resolution skills required to manage the issue yourself, enlist help from a professional mediation company.

Need to learn more about Workplace Mediation? Get in touch with the experts at Emverio Workplace Solutions. We can assist with your mediation, investigations and training needs. Contact us by email or call us today on 1300 414 179.