“You can't shake hands with a clenched fist.” Indira Ghandi
Conflict in the workplace can take a number of different forms and degrees – from muted disagreement through to raised voices, sometimes even violence. It can occur between team members, between managers of different departments or between managers and staff. It can damage personal and business relationships. It can result from personal interaction or organisational culture. It can arise spontaneously or build over time. Whatever its form or vehemence, conflict can have serious consequences for individuals and organisations alike. It needs to be handled with sensitivity and authority; it cannot be ignored!
Conflict costs money!
Being in conflict is no fun. It’s stressful, unpleasant, distracting, intrusive and annoying. But that’s not all. Conflict costs money! And those costs can be calculated, in terms of wasted time, bad decisions, lost employees, lowered job motivation, health costs and legal expenses.
OPP’s report “Fight, Flight or Face it” (2008) suggests that for the UK this might be in the region of 370 million working days, or more than £24 billion, lost every year as a result of conflict in the workplace. Further, the CIPD’s 2007 Managing Conflict at Work survey report found that on average organisations devote more than 12 days in HR and management time a year in managing disciplinary and grievance cases for every 100 employees. The survey also found that employers face average annual costs associated with employment tribunal claims and hearings of £20,000.
These findings show the very significant costs that organisations face if disputes escalate to the point where the formal disciplinary or grievance process has to be used. Of course it is not just management time wasted and financial costs that employers must take account of, but also the personal cost of individuals under stress, employee absence, dysfunctional teams and damage to morale and productivity. In many cases employees will simply vote with their feet and leave organisations if conflict is not resolved effectively.
Resolving conflict is an increasing challenge for organisations
Resolving conflict in the workplace is becoming an increasing challenge for employers. In 2006-2007 the number of individual employment disputes that resulted in employment tribunal applications increased to 132,577 compared with 115,039 for the previous year. The high number of claims is partly explained by the public’s increased awareness of employment rights and their recourse to litigation, but the situation was exacerbated by the introduction in October 2004 of the Statutory Dispute Resolution Regulations, which demanded that every business follows a three-step disciplinary and grievance procedure. In practice this led to a formalisation of how conflict at work is managed, resulting in more time being spent following disciplinary and grievance procedures and no reduction in the number of employment tribunal applications made by disgruntled employees.
On 6 April 2009 the statutory dispute resolution procedures (SDRPs) were repealed in Great Britain and a new ACAS code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures (the new code) came into force. While employers can breathe a sigh of relief, they still have to stick to a set of principles in a new 10-page ACAS Code of Practice – backed up by a 70-page guidance document on handling disciplinary procedures and grievances or face the possibility of a 25% increase in any award that the tribunal makes against them.
Relying on disciplinary and grievance procedures is counter-productive
Inevitably, organisations are increasingly relying on their HR departments to manage conflict as managers shy away from tackling disputes in case they do or say something that might be held against them during any formal proceedings. This approach is counterproductive, as by the time a dispute has escalated to the point where the disciplinary procedure has been triggered or a formal grievance lodged, opinions are often hardened and confrontational stances on both sides have developed that are very hard to change. In other words, organisations are spending many thousands of pounds to deliver outcomes that are not consistent with individuals staying in their jobs and working collaboratively and effectively with their colleagues.
PARTNERing for Success
We believe a much more effective approach is to recognise conflicts and have the confidence to deal with them at an early stage; to have those difficult conversations and to facilitate discussions between the two parties.
At the heart of both conflict and resolution is communication and dialogue. The PARTNER approach provides a solution-focussed framework for that dialogue which allows individuals to deal with workplace conflicts in a way that is both effective and sustainable.
The Centre for Solutions Focus at Work (sfwork) leads the development and application of Solutions Focus (SF) approaches in the workplace. The PARTNER model has been developed in association with sfwork to provide a simple and practical approach to resolving conflict in the workplace. PARTNER is an acronym standing for Platform Definition; Approach Other Party; Rules of Communication; Their Story-Your Story; Notice Past Success; Express Appreciation; Reach Agreement.
Traditional approaches to conflict resolution focus heavily on the need to analyse and understand the triggers and causes of the conflict in order to resolve it. Hence the emphasis is on what has happened in the past and present and all the “problems” that need to be fixed as a result. In other words, conversations revolve around what individuals do not want i.e. the conflict, why people did what they did (motivations) and how they made the other party feel (emotions).
The PARTNER model recognises that every conflict is different. It outlines a collaborative, approach that creates a partnership between the parties in conflict and empowers them to resolve the immediate conflict and strengthen their overall relationship without necessarily involving a third party. The PARTNER model focuses on resolution (not blame), the future (not the past) and on what’s going well (rather than what’s gone wrong) to ensure a positive and pragmatic way of making progress.