Disputes and conflict in the workplace such as grievances, disciplinary actions, bullying investigations, or even simple disagreements can be costly and time-consuming for businesses to deal with, and can have an adverse effect on the work environment and even how the business is perceived by those on the outside. This does not have to be the case, however. Effectively mediating staff issues and working to provide solutions, while challenging, is a crucial tool for business owners and HR professionals to have in order to ensure a happy and efficient workforce.

While a natural human response may be to avoid conflict and uncomfortable situations, businesses need to respond and not let problems lie without resolution. Joseph Grenny, co-founder of VitalSmarts, a training and organisational development company in the United States has calculated that each week, each unaddressed conflict wastes around eight hours of business time in gossip and other unproductive activities alone, let alone the natural drop in productivity expected of those who at the centre of any conflict. As well as a loss of productivity, conflict can also impact employee health, increase absenteeism, and increase the risk of legal action against the employer.

HR teams and business leaders therefore need the ability to recognise, understand, and resolve conflict well; but how?

A step to take before dealing with a conflict is to create and nurture an open environment in which employees are encouraged to talk about work issues. This allows you to listen to their concerns, as well as ask questions to gain an insight into their perception of the problem, making it easier to resolve a potential problem before it escalates into something bigger.

When a dispute does arise, good mediators will acknowledge the situation, and go into it with an open mind, seeking to fully understand the nature of the issue and the emotions behind it. Employees will often bring strong feelings alongside a conflict; allowing people to express these emotions in a controlled and safe environment will aid the process and allow the HR team to better understand the problem.

The employees at the heart of the dispute then need to be consulted individually to define the problem, what impact it is having on them and their work, and the reasons why it has arisen. Throughout the process, the aim should be to reach a solution acceptable to all parties: a useful tool in finding options to achieve this is to first identify the “needs” of those concerned. Find out the outcomes that the individuals are looking for, and most importantly the reasons why.

Following from this, it is useful to build areas of consensus: things that the parties can agree upon. This starts to rebuild trust and mutual obligations, and can include agreement on issues such as what the problem is; what procedure should be followed; or what changes could be made. Solutions can then begin to be formulated to satisfy the “needs” that have been identified, such as concrete actions to be taken and timeframes to do so. It is important here to get express agreement from everyone involved here to ensure that the proposed steps are adequate for those involved. Ideally throughout the process you will have generated a number of possible alternatives, making it easier to find a solution that everyone can live with.

Once agreement has been achieved, continue to monitor the situation and schedule follow-up meetings with the individuals to make sure that the process has been effective and to evaluate their feelings on the matter going forward.

For more information on this, please contact Yoko Nakada on yoko.nakada@lewissilkin.com
For further information, please contact Koichiro Nakada – Head of Japan Business Group (koichiro.nakada@lewissilkin.com) and Yoko Nakada - Senior Associate, Deputy Head of Japan Business Group (yoko.nakada@lewissilkin.com).
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