Workplace confrontations: Prevention is better than the cure

11 February 2016

SO we've just come out of the season of peace and goodwill and we are rapidly approaching Valentine's day - a recipe for good humour and bonhomie one would think.

Why is it then that so often these days we seem to encounter conflict and discord at work and typically at the point of no return, before have a chance to remedy the situation?

The problem is that the genesis of conflict can often be difficult to spot. When we think back to our days in the school playground we were told that no-one likes a cry baby and as we grew up in this most unique of places we tend to see ourselves as being hewn from pretty resolute
material, presenting a stoic front at all times to the world.

Now I know that you will always get the people who complain at the slightest nudge and who submit grievances at the drop of a hat, but for the majority of the workforce, well, we tend to suffer in silence most of the time.

So what can we do to identify problems early, before we become tied up in formal procedures and legalese; or worse, before we find ourselves sitting in front of a tribunal, someone quits their job or before they start to suffer ill health?

On a broad scale we can use employee surveys. Typically anonymous, they allow organisations to check the pulse of the workforce. This provides an excellent overview of what’s going on in the organisation but can be limited in term of identifying particular areas or issues due to the need for anonymity. It’s also true that some staff simply just don’t trust these as being truly anonymous and will thus hold back from saying anything controversial.

What is perhaps more effective is applying some detective work and using our observational skills as we go about our daily business.

In the social side of work; consider if there are less events being organised or are there perhaps less people turning up to the events that have been arranged? Do you overhear dismissiveor derogatory comments made about individuals on a regular basis? Have you noticed some individuals becoming more withdrawn, speaking less, sitting by themselves more often?

On a work level; think about the meetings you have. Do they seem like they have become deenergised, with less active participation (or participants), poor body language and a real lack of enthusiasm? Do you find that less people volunteer for new projects, overtime or acting up opportunities?

Has the quality of work dipped for no good reason? Perhaps it flows the other way; is there increased competition for work and a clamour to be heard at meetings over the top of colleagues? Are people overly keen to be the top dog and do things their way? Regardless; you should know what is the norm and what is asymptomatic behaviour.

Use your HR metrics to good effect: have the figures for absence increased unexpectedly? Do you see a dip in productivity? Is turnover on the rise? Do you have difficulty filling vacancies?

Are there less people on your training courses? Read your exit interviews carefully. Pick up on what is being said between the lines. A key factor in all of this is creating an environment of trust. If one of your staff comes to you with a problem, don’t trivialise it. Take appropriate action and monitor what happens. Check with them that it has been resolved and they will be more likely to open up with you about more serious issues in future.

Use your 1-2-1 meetings to provide a safe haven for staff to raise issues; pro-actively ask them how they are doing and if there is anything you can do to assist them with their work. It may be just the opportunity they need to unburden themselves. Be friendly, but not over friendly. Staff generally want a manager they can talk to, not a new best friend.

Having said that there is nothing wrong with taking some time getting to know your staff on a personal level; not as the aforementioned best friend, but at least enough to understand what their quirks and personalities are like, what makes them tick.

You will then soon get to know when they are behaving unusually. Put this into perspective however. If they are normally grumpy the day after Man United have lost, Ulster have stumbled at home or after Tyrone have beaten Derry, take this into consideration the next Monday morning that they don’t say hello to you. This doesn’t necessarily signal conflict at work, just annoyance at the sports results.

Fundamentally the key to successful conflict resolution is identifying issues at source.

Stopping little annoyances from growing into formal grievances is always preferable. Now that won’t always happen, but even if we caught 50 per cent of issues early that would be a huge step in the right direction.

The next consideration is how we deal with conflict once we have identified it (at whatever stage). But that’s for another column.

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