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Resolving conflict in the workplace

Stress at work

Conflicts at work can put extra pressure and unnecessary stress on us. Jobs can be demanding enough without the feeling that we are being victimised or bullied in some way.

In a way, the recession has added to this pressure. With companies cutting back and more redundancies being made, employees feel as though they have to work harder in order to keep their job secure – meaning extra work, more hours and more stress – ultimately leading to more conflicts in the workplace.

But this doesn’t mean it should be accepted in the workplace. And the first step, Cary Cooper, psychologist at Lancaster University, believes is to recognise this conflict: “It could start with aggressive behaviour in a meeting, colleagues not socialising or employees gossiping.”

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) believes that conflict at work can take many forms. It can be an individual with a grievance, a problem between an employee and a manager or conflict between two co-workers. However, all conflicts can get in the way of work and make a business less productive.

Common reasons for conflicts in the workplace can be office romances which turn sour, misunderstandings, jealously, a dislike of someone and, of course, excessive workload.

But where do you start if you feel that there is conflict between you and a colleague or a boss? Communication is the most important aspect at this stage. If a boss or colleague is unaware of your unhappiness with a situation then you must voice your concerns. But always at an appropriate time.

“Address your boss or colleague when they are not in a state of stress. This is important as there can be a lot of stress in the workplace. If they are not in the right frame of mind, you may not get the reaction you were expecting,” says Cooper.

Pick a quiet time when you and your colleague are not riddled with deadlines or back-to-back meetings. Use a calm tone of voice and ask for a professional setting to do it in. Accusing a colleague of conflict in front of others or in an unprofessional tone will not improve the situation.

Cooper also advises that we give specific examples of conflict which have arisen. “This way we are pinpointing on a specific time which made us feel victimised or bullied, rather than just generalising.”

Acas also advises that you should try to bring up a conflict before it gets out of hand. It could just be a misunderstanding, and the quicker it is diffused, the better; otherwise, it could have a detrimental effect on the rest of your colleagues and the company as a whole.

But what if the conflict persists?

If talking to your colleague or boss about the problem doesn’t have the outcome you were hoping for it’s important to seek advice or support from a higher level. Companies will usually have systems in place to deal with conflicts in the workplace.

Options available to you are speaking with a HR member within your company or a union representative and getting advice from outside sources such as the Acas helpline. If you are making a formal complaint you may need evidence, so first keep a record of events where you think you are a victim of conflict – including dates, times and descriptions of what happened. Also keep copies of anything else which you may think is relevant – such as emails, notes or letters. If it gets as far as a hearing, then you will need these as evidence.

If the conflict ends amicably, it shouldn’t just be forgotten and swept under the carpet; otherwise, the same problems may arise again and again. Time and effort needs to go into repairing this relationship. “You need to invest in that relationship again. Be co-operative, friendly and social because that element of your relationship has disappeared, and you need to get it back again,” says Cooper.

Most of all a conflict at work, whatever form it takes, shouldn’t be ignored. Unresolved conflict at work can backfire professionally and personally, so act before a minor conflict becomes a major one and not only affects you but also the business you’re working for.

Case study

Jenny was working as a shop assistant in a shoe shop and felt that the assistant manager was picking on her. “For some reason, she just didn’t like me. It made it a misery to have to go to work every day when I knew she would get me to do the most menial tasks.” Jenny finally plucked up the courage to talk to the manger about what was happening.

Thankfully, he handled it professionally and talked to both her and the assistant manager separately and together about their problems and helped them to work through them. “I found out that the assistant manger was bringing in her problems from home and taking them out on me and the rest of the staff. After we talked it through, things got much better.”

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