I dedicate a fair portion of my professional life to resolving workplace conflict. While I enjoy helping companies once a crisis has occurred, my preference is to help companies avoid crises in the first place. Whether your role is in risk assessment and/or management, legal services, human resources, or employee relations, it is important to hone your skills in both proactive crisis-avoidance and creative problem-solving.
In this blog series, I will highlight some of the most common traps I’ve seen companies fall into when it comes to avoiding and resolving conflict. The first is failing to anticipate and plan for high-risk situations.
High Risk Situations: Failure to Anticipate and Plan Accordingly
Although the possibility of conflict cannot be completely eliminated, companies can work to prevent conflicts from occurring and becoming full-blown crises. To mitigate the risk of conflict in their workplaces, companies can learn how to recognize clear triggers for conflict. Companies can also implement programs and craft solutions that will avoid conflict (including designing communication plans that will avoid conflicts and crises). Here are a few common triggers for workplace conflicts:
Whether it is a department reorganization, a business unit reorganization, or a restructuring that affects the entire company, change is difficult and often leads to feelings of unfairness and internal complaints.
A change in leadership can cause conflict whether it is at the department or business unit level, or at the senior leadership level. A change in leadership can mean a change in management style, a change in company culture, a change in company policies or procedures, or a change in the way the company does business. Conflict arising from new leadership is particularly likely when the new leader is selected from the outside (rather than an internal promotion).
Reductions in Force and Layoffs
Oftentimes, it is not the fact that employees are being laid off but the way in which this difficult task is accomplished that acts as the impetus for conflict and crises. This is also true for individual discharges and/or position eliminations, which often occur as a result of reorganization.
The Introduction of Diversity
Conflict often arises when company locations are homogenous, particularly with the introduction of new employees from different demographics (i.e., the introduction of women into a formerly all-male industry or company).
Very Diverse Workforces
Ironically, there are times when extremely diverse workforces (ones that include people of different races, of different religions, of different generations, who speak different languages, etc.) can also experience conflict if issues related to diversity aren’t properly addressed.
Implementation of Remedial Measures
This occurs most often after an investigation (whether internal or by a state agency) or after a lawsuit or settlement. Often companies get caught up in complying with investigatory and legal issues (such as consent decrees) and fail to take steps to minimize further damage.
Informal Corporate Cultures
Whether it’s a culture that tolerates bad behavior, that includes frequent alcohol consumption, or that has a large percentage of young or unsophisticated employees, having an unchecked, informal culture often leads to employment law, human resources, and employee relations issues.
The Two-Step Approach to Conflict Avoidance and Resolution
In all of these situations, a company may want to take a two-step approach to avoid unnecessary conflict. First, companies can recognize that these situations may cause stress and feelings of unfairness because of the changes involved. Take proactive measures to execute plans with that in mind. Talk through the introduction of a new leader, a reorganization, the implementation of remedial measures, etc. and strategize ways in which they can be designed and executed with the fewest unintended consequences.
Second, consider developing a proactive, comprehensive, and precise communication plan. This means actually writing talking points for those who will not only announce changes but who will be asked questions about the reasons behind the changes. Consider drafting a document addressing frequently asked questions to distribute to those who will communicate the changes or to all affected employees.
Being strategic, planning ahead, recognizing the danger zones, and openly communicating with your employees will greatly diminish the chance that these triggers will cause conflicts or crises in your workplace.
Part two of this three-part series examines the concepts of organizational justice and the perception of unfairness at work.