Conflict management in the workplace - the machines can't do it

employment relations Sep 27, 2019

Younger generations are resisting traditional 'top-down' management structures. Finding ways to leverage the new strengths they bring to the workplace in your decision-making and people management, will let you stand out as a leader in the 4IR world.

As a lawyer and Employment Relations specialist, I am used to conflict. From litigation, to grievances, to hearings, to negotiations - there is a whole spectrum of different scenarios and approaches to contend with. I don't mind - dealing with and resolving conflict is a skill that is honed over time and the experience makes me better at my job.

What I was not expecting, was to be called upon to use this skill to assist clients on a management / leadership / human resources level to mediate interpersonal conflict situations. Not once, but numerous times over the last couple of years. It is not as if I have a psychology background or any formal training in the 'science' of conflict resolution. I read people (an essential skill in litigation), I have intuition and I have a lot of experience in observing human nature. And, to be honest, I have 'been there, done that' for almost any type of workplace situation involving people management. Somehow, the combination of all of that gets results.

Then I come across an article like this one in Inc. by Thomas Goetz that just makes perfect sense in explaining the essential conflict environment. In short, he distinguishes between two types of conflict:

  • Decision conflict is one in which colleagues disagree about a choice that was made - anything from choosing a product strategy or a company priority or the wording of an email campaign.
  • A process conflict emerges when a decision lacks expected input or participation from meaningful stakeholders, or where one decision (often made unilaterally) contradicts shared priorities or strategies. In these cases, protocol was not followed, and unpacking the problem requires chasing down what happened and why.

He observes that these conflicts get conflated all the time, and people waste time and energy trying to solve the wrong problem: they're second-guessing and litigating the decision, when the real grievance is that a process wasn't followed. They may not truly disagree with the decision at all, but are putting up a fight because they weren't consulted along the way.

This is really the root of most workplace conflict situations - not the decision per se, but the way it was arrived at. Forget for a moment about all the valid arguments that necessitate decisions to be made unilaterally, or only at a certain level, or for the sake of business efficiencies and survival, or simply because you are a manager under deadline pressure and you do not have the time or luxury to indulge a staff member with an explanation or to ask for input. No one is arguing with these. But it explains the reason for the conflict. I have often presided over hearings or enquiries where employees were adamant that something was 'unfair' - not because it objectively caused any prejudice whatsoever, but based on the subjective perception that they have personally been diminished in some way or another.

People have sensitive ego's; or personal psychological motivators; or a need to validate their self-worth; or they want to increase their importance and status......... the list goes on. Those of us who are used to negotiations for example, know that an important consideration for reaching a deal is for the other party to 'save face' or to demonstrate having won a compromise. (Enter 'Chinese bargaining'....) The optics are important.

Increasingly, however, I have found that the newer generation of the workforce is more willing than their older counterparts to actively protest against management decisions or treatment. It does not matter if they are right or wrong in what they believe, or if it is nothing more than a perception - the main thing is that they are persistent in those beliefs and are willing to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on pursuing it, on principle. Valid performance complaints are contested vehemently and inevitably countered with allegations of victimisation - as if it is quite impossible that anyone can find them less than perfect unless they have another sinister agenda. I hesitate to call it a 'millenial trait' after hearing Simon Sinek's argument that millenials only want what all people want - perhaps the newer generations are just more open in demanding it:

"It’s not about millennials; it’s about humans. We all need to feel valued, recognized, trusted, and cared for. We’re all human, and—regardless of age or demographic—all humans want to feel valued. We want to feel significant. We want to be empowered, to feel trusted and safe. We want to be inspired by the work we do and feel as if we are contributing to something that matters. And we want to know that our organizations care about us—that we aren’t seen as machines or numbers."

So - conflict management in the workplace is putting on a new jacket. It is no longer enough to understand the legal context of disputes and dismiss out of hand anything that does not have litigious merit. It is an increasing trend that employees are willing to act (or resist) according to how they feel, and are not really concerned about legal or factual merit, nor the operational/financial impact on the business. The managers and leaders will have to worry about the latter - and for precisely that reason, will have to rethink their approach to employment relations and seeing it as an HR-issue only.

Let's talk strategic risk management: it is no longer just the odd isolated case that will end up at the CCMA or similar forum, to be settled (most likely) by some kind of payment even when the employer has a strong case and the payment is just for nuisance value. Do the math and factor in word of mouth amongst employees: those amounts are going to pile up and make a big dent in your budget (and bonus!). Or you can fight the cases and might well win them, but the time, resources and effort that will require, will have a similar operational and financial impact on the business.

So - no matter how 'right' you are or how valid your decision-making process is - the traditional work ethic that management has always expected employees to abide by, is on its way out. Much as we would like to believe otherwise, when it comes down to the crunch, people think about themselves first - everyone and everything else second. (I have seen managers being utterly disillusioned by employees who change beyond recognition as soon as their own interests are threatened at work.) Although this is hardly new, the modern employee has no qualms in openly going after that. As a manager, it will be worth your while to start thinking broader than the traditional authority-based management structure and look for better ways to achieve the efficiencies and results that you want. Embrace new concepts such as "productive sparring" and "connectional intelligence" (see notes below) when interacting with employees and when making strategic decisions. You might be surprised.

The business leaders of today already know that in order to stay relevant in the 4IR world, they have to relentlessly adapt and innovate when it comes to business and operations. They should realise that the same applies when it comes to people management and that 'soft skills', are becoming the new 'hard skills' in the world of machines. Rather than safely isolating conflict management in the HR-domain, line managers should actively engage and try out new approaches. Upskilling themselves in this area will at a minimum aid their own personal career development; and potentially boost their business to unexpected achievements.


© Judith Griessel
September 2019


*Productive sparring - "Leveraging diversity" is shaping up to be a top transferable leadership skill. Studies show that teams in which people approach problems from different angles − some prioritising discovering new things and others preferring to draw on what they already know − outperform teams in which people are cognitively alike. To profit from diversity, workplaces need to support people to see beyond stereotyping and recognise the value in difference. (Amy Edmondson) - In the strongest teams people speak candidly and “engage in productive conflict” in order to learn from each other. (John Hagel) - Embrace productive friction (“sparring”) – don’t avoid it. Learn through challenging one another, but respectfully. Diversity helps with this – but not if saying to them “follow the leader and imitate the leader” – that is losing the benefit of different perspectives.

*Connectional intelligence - The third wave of intelligence after IQ and EQ. Connectional Intelligence is the connection of seemingly unrelated networks to get big things done today - to drive innovation and breakthrough results by harnessing the power of relationships and networks. It is not only about sharing new ideas. It’s about the ability to design ideas or problems in a way that will influence and excite others to want to pitch in and solve them. Connectional intelligence recognises that leaps in creativity and progress cannot be achieved in solitude. They require forming relationships, wielding influence well, and sharing a vision so compelling that others adopt it as their own. Millennials are, in a sense, pioneers in an intelligence that comes so naturally to them. They understand that connectivity is an ever-present reality on the job and off the clock. They don’t resist that fact, but they use it to their advantage. But they also understand its pitfalls and know how to ingeniously leverage its strengths. (Erica Dhavan)


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