Conflicts at work can be costly. Conflicts can result in lack of enthusiasm, stress, a malignant work environment and in worst-case scenarios; increased number of sick days and resignations.
The text below is a brief introduction to some of the focal points of the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution in the field of the workplace. The text is a condensation of several articles written in Danish by educators and experts on the field working with the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution.
Conflict Resolution and the workplace: A condensation of points
Based on fifteen years of experience in teaching on and working actively with conflict resolution, the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution has developed a concept which we call ‘the conflict managing work environment’. It is founded on six basic elements:
- A common language
- New ways of talking about conflict
- Tools for conflict resolution
- Clear communication
- The ability to analyse a given situation
- The Courage to reflect
Our work is based on the assumption that conflicts are unavoidable. Conflicts are an integral part of life and thus also a part of the lives we lead at the workplace. We also know that many conflicts can be turned into steppingstones to new and never before seen possibilities. We are, however, also aware that conflicts can lead to division, stress and illness. This is why we train employees and management in conflict resolution. Our job is to support the development of a workplace specific strategy for conflict management.
Conflicts often arise as a result of changes at the workplace. These changes can be caused, for example, by altered financial situations or new political agendas. Among such changes are restructuring of the organization, changes in the amount and nature of the end-user/citizen contact, cut-backs or changes in work conditions. Knowing that such change is imminent, it is important that the organization asks itself whether or not it is prepared to deal with the inevitable conflicts.
What is our conflict management strategy?
Whenever an organization or company requests the assistance of the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution the very first question we ask is: Why? The answer to this question often becomes the driving force in the process at hand. The question is of paramount importance as it forces management to reflect on the workplace culture, and this reflection can help define and make visible the values behind any given change.
Before the process of creating a conflict-managing environment begins, it is necessary to contemplate, and decide on, how many resources are available. By resources we mean:
- Who are to attend workshops and seminars and therefore not performing their regular functions
- Co-workers must be assigned to perform said functions to prevent excessive workloads upon
completion of seminars and workshops
As part of establishing a conflict-managing environment it is the responsibility of management to establish a method for handling conflicts in the future, a so-called Code of Conflict. The Code of Conflict is a democratically adopted document describing how the organization views conflict, as a concept, and how the organization is supposed to act when faced with such conflicts. Elements of a Code of Conflict could be that everyone has:
- Universal access to mediation
- A guaranty that ethics and the principles of equality are maintained, also in conflicts between different organizational levels e.g. junior management and head of department
Some of the key aspects of conflict resolution in a workplace perspective, and in general, are:
- The establishment of a new language
- The organization needs to purge the language of the workplace of bad
habits and actively pursue a new way of communicating. To begin with
this will seem awkward and forced, but experience shows that it soon
- The organization needs to purge the language of the workplace of bad
- The establishment of a common point of reference for the conflict established through, among other things, three key concepts:
- Analysis of the conflict at hand can help clarify the life cycle and development of the conflict as well as the causes and potentials within.
- Reflection encourages the employee to apply the different models and methods of conflict resolution on their own situation and ask the questions: What is my stake in this? What areas of expression and
perception do I need to change? How will I act in the future?
- Communication is the different ways in which we talk to each other. To prevent silence from aggravating the situation it is important to talk to each other concerning conflicts. At the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution we have a special focus on dialogue which we interpret as an open, investigative conversation, free from prejudice with the purpose of learning.
In many ways communication is key to conflict resolution and a conflict-managing environment. Yet another aspect of this is what we have coined as:
It is our understanding that thoughtful feedback can prevent many of the work related conflicts that arise when we remain silent about our disagreements. Feedback, when thoughtless, can create conflicts whereas thoughtful feedback can contribute to colloquial trust and professional growth.
Many people wish for a professional life with a high degree of influence, autonomy and possibility for personal growth. These wishes are greatly in concordance with the ideology and organizational structures of the notion of the modern, proverbial, ‘Good Job’. It is fruitful for employers to organize work in a way that leaves the greatest amount of influence and responsibility with the employees and, it seems that employees thrive in these flat or horizontal organizations.
This high degree of self-reliance, influence and responsibility, together with endless options and possibilities, also creates the risk of losing one’s orientation, of making mistakes and thus creates the necessity for others to intervene. Managers, junior managers and colleagues alike should provide constructive feedback. In the flat organizational structure of today, this constructive feedback is all the guidance we can expect and thus becomes even more important.
Feedback has many facets:
- Guidance is when a person of more professional experience or knowledge guides a co-worker or employee. Guidance, not to be mistaken as counselling, is a process wherein the ‘guide’ helps the ‘guided’ find the right answer or solution him/herself.
- Correctionassumes that the one being corrected is going down a wrong path, determined by the one who corrects.
- Reprimandis a more invasive and asymmetrical form of communication.
Reprimand is only to be conducted when someone is doing something decidedly wrong that has to be corrected instantly. This should only be conducted by a person who outranks the one who is being reprimanded.
- Dialogue Based Feedbackconsists of one person initiating a conversation on a professional level regarding observations and contemplations on another person’s work.
In a conflict resolution and conflict managing environment perspective we focus on the Dialogue Based Feedback.
A note of caution
One needs to be aware that with any form of feedback, including Dialogue Based Feedback, the person who is receiving feedback is in a vulnerable position. Whenever we observe and describe another person we are approaching, and at times crossing, personal boundaries. For a while, we ‘invade’ that person. In order to understand this ‘invasion’ and the areas of an individual it deals with one can turn to the ‘Johari’s window’, which visualizes the fact that there are many sides to an individual. Some areas are visible to both one-self and to others, whereas others are only visible to others or to one self:
|Known to self||Not known to self|
|Known to others||‘PUBLIC’|
Clear, illuminated and well known.
Area of unhindered conversation
Area for feedback
|Not known to others||‘HIDDEN’|
Area of supervision
Area for therapy
Dialogue Based Feedback aims to expand the area, which is known to self, the ‘Public’, in order to make areas of the ‘Blind spot’ visible to the recipient.
This leads us to yet another point of concern regarding conflict resolution and the workplace. Is it acceptable that the workplace concerns itself with complex personal and emotional aspects of a conflict, as is required in mediation? Are we crossing a boundary between work and privacy which should not be crossed? In order to prevent this crossing of boundaries from becoming an invasion, it is of outmost importance that any effort is conducted in an, for all concerned, appropriate pace.
Differentiate between the issue and the person
The purpose of feedback is for the recipients to become wiser and learn about themselves. There is, however, within the concept of feedback a risk that the person who gives feedback presents his or her observations as evaluations of the person, not the issue at hand. It is, therefore, important that words are chosen carefully in order to prevent insecurity and conflict. Furthermore, it is also very important that the recipient of feedback trusts the intentions of the person who gives the feedback. The intentions should be, as described earlier, to help an individual erase some of the blind spots he or she may have.
Helle Alrø and Marianne Kristiansen have constructed a practical method of feedback, which emphasizes:
- Differentiation between the issue and the person
- The importance of differentiation between observation, interpretation
- Opening a dialogue regarding the issue, which is the object of feedback
As a point of reference we present some thoughts on the process of Dialogue Based Feedback:
- Observation. It is important for constructive feedback, that what is being observed is a known and recognizable occurrence. The person who conducts the feedback must describe as accurately as possible exactly what happened. Observation should be free of evaluation, prejudice and
moralization and the recipient should be able to recognize and approve of the observation.
- Subjectively experienced. What has been observed has been observed through the eyes of the one who has observed and is thus not an objective truth.
- Interpretation. Feedback should tell the recipient how his or her actions are perceived. Feedback is an opportunity to become aware of how others interpret what we do.
- Evaluation. If the one who presents the feedback is (co-)responsible for the correct completion of an assignment, evaluation of the person being observed may be appropriate. It is important to note that evaluation is not always relevant or appropriate.
- Dialogue. Any real progress achieved by means of feedback is the result of dialogue and it is important to allocate time for a post-feedback dialogue. Before beginning any dialogue between the recipient and the person who has given feedback, allow the recipient amble time to digest what has been said. Critical feedback can be a mouthful even under optimal conditions.
A new responsibility
If one adopts the tenets of Dialogue Based Feedback and workplace conflict management, employees and management alike also have to assume a new responsibility.
First of all it is the responsibility of management and employees to deal according to the principles of the conflict-managing environment and the Code of Conflict. Without active participation and support the efforts will not succeed.
Ten pieces of advice for the manager who wants to deal responsibly with a given conflict:
- When you sense disaffection, investigate.
- The ‘good listener’ doesn’t necessarily agree. To recognize is not the same as acceptance and understanding is not the same as agreeing.
- Help both parties be concrete and identify their own interests and needs.
- Always inform both parties when something is referred.
- Inform the rest of the staff that the problem is being dealt with.
- Ask yourself how far your competences reach. Know when to seek outside assistance.
- Not all conflicts can be solved, but is i worth a try- the attempts carry a value of their own.
- The expectations of everybody involved should be clear and defined.
- Develop and adopt a Conflict Readiness Plan or Conflict Management Strategy in collaboration with your employees.
- Dialogue is a must!
As with all implementations of new ideas in the workplace dealing with conflict resolution in a sensible way requires upkeep. A conflict-managing environment requires resources in terms of:
- Recurring seminars
- Using the methods on a daily basis
- Using the time necessary when conflicts arise
Management should be aware that it is a time consuming and long term effort to create a conflict-managing environment at a workplace, and most importantly that the people that it affects drive any such effort.
3/6-2010, Erik Helvard, the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution
Above text contains elements of the following articles:
Den konstruktive feedback,
Et nyt ansvar for leder og medarbejder &
Glasur på arbejdskampen
By Nethe Plenge, Educator at the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution
Konfliktkultur – relationelle trædesten
By Aase Rieck Sørensen, Director & Bjarne Vestergaard, Co-Director, the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution