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Predicting When to Mediate Workplace Conflict

Predicting the optimum time to intervene in a conflict is a bit like predicting the weather, more often than not you get it right but there are always freak events that will contaminate your predictions. Conflicts tend to transition through specific stages, if you improve your knowledge of these stages  then you’ll increase your chances  of stopping a conflict before it gets out of control. The first stage is often the most mundane and frustrating…

Conflict Collision

Workplace conflicts typically begin over a trivial matter, for example borrowing an item of stationary and not returning it on time or in the same condition it was when borrowed. Yes, pretty dull I know. There are other ingredients that spice things up a little such as excessive workload, time pressure, stress and so on, but essentially we have all the ingredients to concoct a good old fashioned workplace conflict.

Caveat: It has of course nothing at all to do with the item of stationary in question and everything to do with unmet expectations about when and in what condition the said item of stationary would be returned and the meaning attributed to this action. But you knew this already, right? If not and you want to learn more then leave a comment below to let me know.

Discussing Undiscussables

All that’s happened up to this point is that the two protagonists have exchanged some words, maybe some side remarks at each other as  way of communicating their disapproval. At no stage is the ‘victim’ explicit about his or her frustrations – and this my friends, I believe, is at the heart of the problem.

Naturally one would expect two adults to sit down and talk openly about their frustrations and expectations of each other in order to clear up the misunderstanding that exists between them. But no, I think that’s too much to expect of two grownups to do especially if you’re paying them £1000′s every month to be responsible and accountable for their behaviour!

Mediate or Just a Difficult Conversation?

At this stage it’s simply too early in the conflict for a third party intervention, let alone floating the suggestion of a mediation. The matter seems too trivial to the parties and both will be blind to the pattern of events that are about to unfold. So as far as they’re concerned there’s no compelling reason to sit down and talk because there’s nothing at stake, just a ‘minor clash of personalities’ as they say.

Workplace Conflict Needs to Fester

There is a fertile stage between the initial collision and when the conflict goes underground. This is a good time for a third party intervention because the conflict now begins to afflict others in the team and starts to interfere with effectiveness, productivity and the well being of its members.

Managers – This is Your Time.

If you intervene now you can surface all the issues and extinguish the flames of the conflict. Do this by:

  • Pull both parties to one side (Your instinct will be to speak to them separately. Resist this temptation with all your might. It’s a slippery slope if you don’t. You’ll just become a repository of confidential information that will radically reduce your effectiveness at facilitating the difficult conversation between them.)
  • Share your observations with both parties (stick to the data and avoid inferences).
  • Share the impact you notice it’s having on other’s (give specific examples).
  • Share your expectation that it’s resolved right now and the outcome you expect. (Ask them if they think you’re expectations are unreasonable – this is important)
  • Schedule a meeting later that day or the next day and give both parties instructions about how to prepare for that meeting.

Congratulations! Not only have you taken the first big step to prevent the conflict from escalating but you’ve also done what very few managers do; take accountability seriously.

Sending the Wrong Message

If you are in any doubt about the advice on offer in this article, then allow me to present an alternative narrative.

Say you decide not to intervene at this stage, then it’s possible a number of things will happen – This is worst case scenario but one I would want you to avoid.

  • You lose credibility with your team because they perceive your action as an act of collusion.  In other words, by not intervening you are sending a message to the group to say, ‘it’s ok to behave in this way‘.
  • The potency of your positional power and influence with the main protagonists will diminish, because you’re not exercising your authority and making your expectations about group norms explicit.
  • As the conflict goes underground, the main protagonists will begin to form ‘beach heads’ and strengthen their position by inviting alliances to join them. Team members on the periphery get dragged in to the toxicity.
  • Stress levels increase as efficiencies decrease.
  • Resentments build between members as some carry the workload of others.

Get the picture?

So I encourage you to intervene early, not too early but before the conflict goes ‘underground’. Make sure you have enough data to make your proposal for a ‘difficult conversation’ or mediation is compelling to both parties. Avoid tripping yourself up by speaking to the parties separately and address them together sharing your observations and your expectations.

If you want to learn how to facilitate a difficult conversation then click here: How to Facilitate a Difficult Conversation

What do you think of my post? Please leave some feedback below.

Thanks You.

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  • SAAHPOE

    An interesting discussion, thanks.

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