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How can you improve your 'conflict competence'?

Complicated dispute resolution procedures can create a log-jam of complaints, absorbing the time of senior staff and making timely resolutions unlikely. An adversarial attitude between business and employee representatives turns disputes into a battleground where each side seeks a 'win' rather than a mutually-beneficial resolution.

Furthermore, as grievance procedures are used and refined over the years, they can become very elaborate and formalistic. The result is a cautious approach that mitigates against more informal ways to deal with problems.

Looking beyond formal procedures to a broader 'conflict competence' approach involves making an organisation more fit to deal with conflict flexibly and appropriately. Typically, such organisations make a range of resolution options available, from quiet chats to informal dispute resolution to traditional mediation. Sometimes trained key personnel promote the system and facilitate it, for example, by brokering informal meetings. The approach can pay great dividends - particularly in enabling working relationships to remain intact throughout and beyond a grievance or disciplinary episode, rather than damaged beyond repair.

Surprisingly, however, such a system can be tricky to embed. Where there is an existing lack of trust between management and employees, some people may actually desire formality as a safeguard. In particular, employees or employee representatives may not want informal discussions in case anything they said was used against them later. Some employees and employee groups might prefer a formal procedure because finding procedural flaws is a further source of points in their favour. In turn, this can result in managers sticking rigidly to procedure and both sides becoming reliant on the adversarial process.

How to turn a vicious circle into a virtuous one? Training is an obvious way to address this. If staff are promoted to managerial roles based on their technical competence, they will not necessarily have the ready-made people skills needed for dealing with the disciplinary and grievance issues that come with their managerial workload.

In fact, training can help throughout the organisation, though, helping instil a culture where all sides see each others' points of view. Dispute resolution becomes much less entrenched when potential grievance-raisers understand how their employer sees the situation, and employers are willing to accept that something in their own processes or assumptions might have set employees off on the path to a grievance.

Finally, fostering closer relationships between the employer or HR department and employees and representatives is also key. If the first thing an HR officer hears about a grievance is notification from a union rep that it has been formally raised, that's already too late to start many informal processes. Prior informal warning can prevent situations escalating to formal procedures almost immediately.

Some tensions can be addressed by referring to the service in a descriptive way. Using a more specific phrase like 'informal resolution of employee complaints' rather than just an abstract term like 'informal mediation' helps defuse concerns that its very accessibility will be a magnet for employees who object to being managed or managers who are reluctant to address difficult issues.

Acas provides a wide range of Training Courses, Workshops and Projects, including courses on Conflict management such as Dispute resolution, Negotiating skills and Mediation. Training courses can be tailored to suit the needs of your business.

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