When you hear the words “irreconcilable differences” or, in the case of attorney-general George Brandis and solicitor-general Justin Gleeson SC, “irretrievable breakdown” in their relationship, you know what it means. It means they can’t stand to be in the same room together, let alone work together. So how do you stop workplace conflict like this before it starts?
The resignation of Justin Gleeson SC is a culmination of a feud that has been festering since May, when the two first law officers fell out over the directions and guidelines under which the solicitor-general works. The details don’t concern us here. What does, is whether important relationships experiencing workplace conflict are ever salvageable? Or, whether there has to be a sacrificial lamb – or two – and how HR can handle a situation that has the potential to send shockwaves throughout an organisation and unsettle employees.
Other tortured relationships spring to mind, such as former cricket captain Michael Clarke and Shane Watson whose war of words is still playing out since the release of Clarke’s autobiography. And the power struggle at Apple between Steve Jobs and John Sculley who was brought in to be CEO and eventually led to Jobs’s resignation.
For mere mortals in the workplace, however, whether you’re dealing with co-workers, superiors or subordinates, strong professional relationships are crucial for career success. So mending fences has to be a first option before things get out of hand.
Management can be held to ransom in these situations and HR needs to be the voice of reason and make both parties aware that finding a solution to work through these issues is an organisational requirement and that refusal to do so may lead to more formal discussions.
Paula Bruce, Director Resolution Services Group, says flight or fight are natural default behaviours in pressure situations. Stress automatically activates fear and triggers flight or fight.
“These are reactive responses and conflict is then likely to escalate and spread to the broader team. Attitudes, emotions, values and behavior spread through groups like wildfire. Facts have little strength in such a climate,” she says.
The question, she says, is “How can HR, as workplace resolvers, as professionals, help parties examine their own default responses, support them in conflict resolution and also lead by example?”
Peter O’Brien and Paula Bruce’s research paper ‘Challenges to mediation in Australian Workplaces’ from 2010, focused on a study of 40 workplace disputes in NSW.
It identified a need for workplace dispute resolution responses to go beyond mediation and have more nuanced and broader approaches to resolving these issues.
“The more an individual develops awareness and applies skill as a primary response, the less likely secondary and tertiary interventions such as facilitation, mediation, investigation and compensation may be necessary,” says Bruce.
Bruce refers to social psychologists, Phyllis and Sherod Miller who have commented on how the power for change often lies with the individual’s ability to self reflect on a situation. Besides greater self-awareness, consideration and collaboration are also necessary, say the researchers.
Top tips for avoiding workplace conflict:
- Act immediately. Conflicts do not go away. Avoiding conflict is one of the main causes of claims being made against an organisation.
- Meet with people involved in the conflict separately. Get a clear understanding of the issues before you try to intervene.
- Perception is reality. Focus on what the people involved need and what’s important to them, not on trying to judge who is right or wrong.
- Decide whether to mediate or to call in others to help. Once you have discussed the issues with all or both of the people involved, decide whether you will be able to mediate yourself or you will need the help of HR or external mediators. Managers often successfully resolve simple disputes involving two people that have only been alive for a few hours, days or weeks. Generally complex and long-standing issues involving a number of people are best left for experienced mediators to deal with.
Courtesy of mindfulmeditation