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Defusing A Time Bomb


It takes more than a spot of maturity to manage workplace conflict, writes JANE CARO


You need to be a grown-up before you can effectively and calmly manage conflict. By that I don’t mean you have to have reached chronological maturity. I mean you have to be able to control your own emotions and behave in an adult fashion. One of the reasons businesses (and families, parliaments, schools, clubs, sporting teams, etc) have trouble managing conflict is because few people have fully grown up.

Far too many people in positions of power take conflict personally. I think the essence of being a grown-up is knowing where you stop and other people start. Not everything is about you. I remember taking a conflict-based problem to the HR manager of a company where  I once worked, only to be greeted by a response best summed up as “you think you’ve got problems? Wait until you hear about my problems!”

As you can imagine, this was not helpful. Worse, I got the clear message that next time  I had a problem I should keep it to myself. I did and, of course, eventually I left.

Conflict is an inevitable part of life and relationships, including at work. People who work closely together, particularly if the demands are stressful, will have grievances and aggravate each other from time to time. Small irritations are probably best left to those involved to work out but if the problems become chronic then intervention is required, and quickly.

Obviously it is important to have clear policies on dealing with conflict. It is important the lines of communication are open and non-judgmental (this is crucial). If you are a manager and an employee comes to you with a workplace conflict, it is understandable that your heart might sink, but it is also vital you keep that response to yourself.

Remind yourself that an employee will only risk telling you about this stuff if they trust you and if the conflict has gone beyond a joke. Knowing the real emotional temperature of the workplace you manage is much more of an opportunity than a problem, so look at it that way.

Good, confident (aka grown-up) managers want to know about conflicts before they escalate into full-scale warfare and blow up in your face, so encourage people to come to
you early. Managers who subtly (or not so subtly) indicate they don’t want to know are just storing up big trouble for the future. Managing conflict requires you to be calm, scrupulously fair and open-minded.

Listen to both sides of the story. Try to get those involved to listen to each other. If you can’t manage that, there are professional mediators who are skilled in trying to open communication when it has broken down (that is what most conflict is about). When you decide what you will do, you need to explain not just your actions but also the reasons behind them clearly and calmly.

Make sure you have been fully understood. Allow those affected to express how they feel, even if it is negative. You can listen – you can be compassionate – without changing your decision. Try not to apportion or accept blame. Blame is never helpful and can only escalate tensions. Who is to blame is not the issue, what can be done so that everyone can continue working effectively together is the goal. Don’t seek the sympathy of those you are disciplining – this is not about you, it is about your staff.

If you have a difficult staff member, try to remember that however toxic their behaviour, they are human, too. Don’t bully the bullies. If you have to remove someone from their job, do it as kindly and compassionately as you can. If you suspect they are struggling with emotional or mental health issues try to get them the appropriate help. However they behave, you must remain calm. You are then modeling the right way to behave to the rest of your staff. Do not get hooked into their emotional state.

Dealing with conflict is hard and requires self-control and maturity. That’s why – in high-performing workplaces – often senior managers and HR personnel are responsible for conflict resolution as their experience better equips them for the task. The more open, straightforward and fair-minded your management style, the less problems you will have with workplace conflict. To be honest, toxic workplaces are usually created from the top.


Jane Caro runs her own communications consultancy. She worked in the advertising industry for 30 years and is now an author, journalist, lecturer and media commentator.


We are very excited to have Jane Caro MC at this year’s AIM Great Debate in Canberra. Book Now and enjoy a full day of networking and debate as our speakers discuss the topic “Equal pay will close the gender gap”.


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