Engaging with workplace conflict

Community Works has responded to requests from organisations to assist them to understand and better manage conflicts in the workplace. We have worked where disputes exist between individual staff and where partner organisations working on a program have struggled to agree on shared strategies and separate responsibilities. We have also helped boards that are seeking to identify and work with conflict before it hampers their activities.

Our approach has supported organisations to engage with conflict. The word engagement is becoming over-used in development work, but it is the best one to use here. We take it from the subject entitled ‘Conflict Management and Engagement’ that Maria Rodrigues and Steve Fisher of Community Works teach at James Cook University. The key text for that course is ‘Staying with conflict’ by Bernard Mayer, which has also supported our thinking more generally around approaches to conflict.

So, in workplace situations, our starting point is to accept that conflict is always likely rather than denied or avoided. For organisations to manage and live with conflict, they should start by understanding the shared goals that exist between the parties who are in disagreement with each other. Supporting a conversation around future shared aspirations can be a valuable way to strengthen common ground, while not denying the existence of differences.

Conflict also needs to be discussed in ways that enable people to work with it. We have found that helping people to think about the ways they describe conflict and to reframe those descriptions so they are less rigid and more amenable to discussion can be a constructive step. Breaking out of negative mindsets and repetitive language around the way conflict is spoken about is a challenge worth taking on.

Another effective way to support engagement with conflict in the workplace is to explore avoidance. For example, people may be avoiding discussion of a problem by managing meeting agendas in a certain way or failing to talk to people or teams with whom they have a disagreement. Organisational cultures can actually facilitate avoidance and so changing those cultures needs to be part of better strategies for managing conflict.

Similarly, introducing examples of good practice in managing conflict can be useful. We all exist in our own organisational worlds and so the fresh air that comes from learning above policy and practice in other places is welcome. But examples are not recipes because each organisation is different.

This is a project case study without naming the organisations with whom we have worked because their confidentiality is paramount. Community Works has gained insights from our work with several organisations. We have helped people engage with conflict in a constructive way.