Training and development for conflict
Businesses regularly make significant investments in process innovation, culture and branding, health and safety, and professional development. Most businesses also have back-up plans for critical system failure. However, conflict education and planning are rarely priorities. As people, we believe we are experts at being people; we assume that we will not need plans and agreements about how to talk to each other, to engage, and to settle disagreements. We do these things every day. Why should we talk about conflict?
Except that we do have to talk about conflict. Studies around the world show that almost all employees experience conflict at work, with most of it being interpersonal conflict. Unmanaged conflict can become costly and stressful, and is avoidable. For this to work, an organisation needs to become "conflict competent." Conflict competence includes normalising conflict by planning for it; including it as part of induction training; keeping the learning going; and providing conflict management tools and resources to employees.
Normalise conflict by planning for it
You can have the best product or service in the world, but if you can't work though conflict constructively and preserve your working relationships while doing so, then your business will not achieve what it has set out to do. Very few of us recognise, though, that we need to both learn how to deal with and plan for the "what if" scenarios of conflict.
Teams and organisations can accomplish this by coming up with their conflict plan, a blueprint for communicating with each other in a healthy way. Depending on the size of the organisation, you may have one overall plan, or one per team or division. Regardless of the number of plans, they should use the same framework, be documented, visible, easily accessible, and reviewed regularly.
Topics for consideration include:
- How are we going to raise conflict issues with each other?
- What are our conflict resolution styles? Are they compatible across the team?
- If not, how do we agree to work through conflict in ways that address all resolution styles?
- What other agreements can we reach now about how we will engage with each other in a period of conflict?
- What outcomes do we want from conflict?
- What steps can we build into conflict that enable us to harness any positive change that may come from it?
- How should we document how processes and polices, product development, and organisational structures can be improved based on conflict outcomes?
- Have we completed annual training in conflict? If not, why?
- What conflict have we experienced in the last reporting period? How was it handled?
- If we cannot resolve conflict ourselves, what are our escalation steps? How we will engage with a third-party neutral to help us get the relationship back on track?
Ideally, a continuous improvement aspect would also be included, which ensures regular review and also helps normalise the existence and healthy resolution of conflict. This would include debriefing after a period of conflict and reflecting on what worked well, what didn't, and how that experience alters and shifts your previous conflict planning.
Include basic training in conflict as part of induction training
Employees who receive basic conflict management training are more likely to confidently resolve conflict on their own and experience less conflict overall. The first week of a new role may be one of the best opportunities for basic conflict training as competing obligations have not yet had a chance to intrude. This is true regardless of the size of the organisation. Further, basic conflict training is scalable according to organisational size, number of people involved, and available resources.
If you have a full day available for training, multiple people to train, and have access to outside resources, consider having a conflict educator come in to work with the new team members. Conflict education should include:
- The nature of conflict
- Understanding conflict in the workplace
- Our own contributions to conflict
- The importance of empathy and how to practically embed this into your working relationships
- How to have difficult conversations
- Review of the organisation's conflict plan
- Discussion with participants about their experiences with conflict
- Opportunities for role play and self-assessment of conflict, communication, and defensives styles.
For smaller organisations and/or where there may only be one person to induct, an hour or two devoted to basic conflict education can be enough to get someone going. This should include a review of the organisation's conflict plan and a short, one-hour interactive session on conflict.
Organisations should consider working with a conflict management educator to create a short conflict education programme that can be used with all new employees and contractors and does not require a specialist conflict educator to come in each time. Consider an online, interactive induction that includes short quizzes to measure retention and understanding of conflict management concepts. Equally, a paper-based, workbook driven programme can be just as effective if there are opportunities for interaction, role-playing, discussion, and questions.
Keep the learning going
A recent HR Trends article highlighted six trends in workplace learning and development, including micro-learning; integrated workflow and learning opportunities; and having content available everywhere.
Micro-learning involves the presentation of small chunks of information which can either be available for ad-hoc education or as part of regular, ongoing training for staff. For example, if your organisation created an online, interactive programme for induction, this can be organised into small chunks, which can then be used as part of regular training for all staff.
Micro-learning also includes opportunities to discuss conflict scenarios and apply learning. For example, what would happen if you included conflict as a standing item on your weekly team meeting? This could be a time for employees and contractors to share conflict experiences and what they did to safely and competently address the conflict. Not only does this allow for a natural introduction of small conflict management concepts, it also continues the important goal of normalising conflict within an organisation.
Integrated workflow and learning opportunities includes employees receiving "pointers" or access to information at critical points in a process to ensure continued learning and adherence to best practice. How could this be used in the conflict management sense? Consider an employee who engages with the public or customers via telephone or email. At times, these interactions can be fraught. If your process (either electronically or paper-based) included a reminder about how to handle difficult calls or how to de-escalate situations, the employee will feel more in control, work through potential conflict with competence, reinforce their abstract learning in a real-life situation, and ultimately feel more resilient and effective.
Having content available everywhere ensures that employees can access it whenever they need it and in ways that best resonate with their learning style. For example, having conflict management integrated into workflow and learning opportunities; including conflict as a standing item for team meetings; having regular 'in-service' training on conflict; regularly reviewing the organisation's conflict plan; and making conflict education materials available at any time means that employees get what they need when they need it in the way that best works for them.
Provide conflict management tools and assistance
Finally, a conflict-competent organisation has multiple tools available to its employees and contractors so that when help is needed, it's available. There are multiple ways to accomplish this, including:
- having in-house dispute resolution assistance separate from the People and Capability Team;
- having a team of employees who have received peer-to-peer mediation training so that they can assist colleagues in resolving issues;
- Engaging with a conflict resolution organisation to provide independent, confidential, informal, and neutral assistance to employees on an as-needed basis so that they can better understand a current conflict and plan for what to do next.
These tools are in addition to the training, micro-learning, conflict planning, and education tools that a conflict-competent organisation has at its disposal.
References available on request.
Jennifer Mahony is Client Director at FairWay Resolution Limited. Jennifer is an experienced workplace litigator and mediator with almost 20 years' experience as a dispute resolution practitioner. As Client Director of FairWay's Workplace Conflict services, Jennifer works with organisations to develop their skills to help prevent and manage future disputes. She also delivers tailored workshops to help businesses to manage and learn from complaints.
Jennifer is a Fellow in Arbitration of the Arbitrators' and Mediators' Institute of New Zealand (AMINZ) and has a Juris Doctor from Emory University School of Law.
Integrate conflict management into workflow and learning opportunities by including conflict as a standing item for team meetings