The expression “Office Drama” evokes an image of somewhat incompetent individuals involved petty disagreements that are blown out of proportion. The reality is that disagreements that arise in the workplace are often between highly competent individuals and the consequences, far from being petty can have far reaching consequences on the business as well as the careers and the mental health of those involved.
Having said that, these kinds of disagreements often start with a difference of opinion or approach over “the small things”. Sometimes the problem seems too small or irrelevant to address and certainly isn’t something HR would be brought in on. Because of this, the issue festers and builds. When the original issue is ultimately addressed it seems petty and embarrassing for those involved. The consequence is that relationships are tarnished not only because of the dispute but also because of how the individuals involved have been perceived more widely in the organisation as a result.
Historically, HR has stepped in when the drama is close to crisis point. These crises come in the form of disciplinary or grievance action being taken or employees going on sick leave or resigning. At this point HR often has to be the fixer or the arbitrator of the situation. The trouble with this is that HR start to just add another dimension to the drama and become just another actor or party involved in the dispute.
HR is better placed to providing a strategic approach to conflict management and conflict coaching support. If done well, HR’s direct intervention will then only be required rarely if at all. Rather, HR will enable employees and managers to resolve disputes themselves and become more resilient to conflict situations. This can be achieved by focussing on the following SOAP (opera) themes:
Build your Early Resolution or “ADR” Strategy: HR will be instrumental in developing and co-ordinating a coherent Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) strategy covering both learning and development and dispute resolution. Expertise in conflict resolution is key to develop this strategy well but essentially it include:
- Auditing the organisation’s conflict including the cost to the organisation and the impact on its people
- Developing a learning and development environment that supports early resolution. Ideally this will be in the form of staff training in early resolution skills and templates to resolve difficult conversations. However, whilst it is true that the more comprehensive the training the better the impact, even light touch training on understanding conflict and a framework for difficult conversations can affect culture
- Resolving current and historic disputes through a mediated intervention, reviewing future use of mediation and appointing your resolution team for early intervention. (See Appoint your resolution team below)
Identify Opportunities for Early Resolution. These opportunities arise in the themes and patterns found in the conflict situations or “dramas” that we come across throughout the organisation when we look a little closer. When we know key areas in which conflict arises, we are equipped to prevent them. This will also be highlighted by the audit but can be done by identifying:
- where and how conflicts arise within the organisation
- key themes arise during the course of conflict situations including a particular approach of the organisation, language, team or manager
- roles within the organisation which address conflict regularly including managers, trades union representatives and key Directors
- areas where future conflict may arise as a result of fear or uncertainty for example future mergers or restructuring
Appoint your resolution team
Once you understand the organisation’s needs and a strategy to address them, you can then appoint appropriate individuals to resolve conflict through its lifecycle. Identifying the Resolution Team roles will be part of your Strategy but will include:
- Mentors to pre-empt conflict by ensuring that expectations are clear and defined
- Personal Conflict Coaches will be equipped to coach individuals through a tricky situation and build a strategy to come out of it successfully. The conflict coach may be a member of the HR team but could also be trusted co-workers and managers. The key will be that the Personal Coach has skills to empower the individual to find a solution to their conflict as opposed to fall victim to it
- Resolution Agents. These might include the HR team but can also be managers involved in working with teams who experience conflict. A Resolution Agent will understand that conflict is a key part of a creative or driven workforce and process. They will work to strict boundaries similar to those a mediator might adhere to including confidentiality, impartiality and even handedness.
- Mediation Support. This function may sit inside the HR team but does not have to. It is key that the mediation support function understands how mediation works and coaches individuals to think through their options.
- In house or external mediators. Whether the organisation has internal or external mediators will again depend on multiple factors. If the Early Resolution Scheme is implemented well then mediation can be an option welcomed as opposed to feared by employees
Build a Peer coaching culture
A peer coaching culture is one in which employees can talk through conflict without it turning into a drama. This means that employees understand something of the nature of conflict as well as their responses to it. It also means that the conversation that individuals have about conflict is less one of blame, shame, undermining and talking about and more one of mutual understanding and talking to.
If done well, following the SOAP opera guidelines, HR can step in to office Dramas before they start and seize the opportunity to enable conflict to become an opportunity for change and development. They become key to conflict resolution, they avoid escalating the conflict and serve as an essential support to employees.