How to crack conflict issues

The man driving the blue car got out, walked over to her car and then punched the windscreen causing it to crack!? Terrifying for her. He then got back in his car and sped off. Police were appealing for witnesses.

This got me pondering. We all have bad days but can this sort of road rage ever be justified? Surely there are other ways of managing the inner turmoil or conflict that would lead to this? Did she know she’d done something to upset him – probably not, instead he chose an aggressive tactic to deal with a conflict.

He could have driven off grumbling under his breath about women drivers (sorry to all the ladies reading this). He could have asked his passenger to call the police and report her had what she had done been so very bad. Or he could have done any number of sane things in between. But he did none – instead he lashed out, literally.

This brings to mind being asked to deal with such inappropriate reactions in the ‘corporate world.’ There’s one example where a manager had stopped one of the maintenance crew by holding onto his arm as he walked past, he had physically restrained him and given him a verbal dressing down. He didn’t hit him, but what he did could have been argued as just as intimidating. As the HR Director I had to unpick this. The manager was generally very mild mannered and rarely showed any emotion, let alone aggressive behaviours.

The employee was, on the whole, a model employee who had made a genuine mistake.

My first thought was ‘such a shame I’ll have to recommend sacking him’ but because the company I worked for had a clear, concise and communicated policy on dealing with such things I was able to fully investigate the situation and surrounding facts that led up to this. I had the option of allowing an informal resolution, or dealing with it formally. The individual was counselled as to his preferred course of action, he advised he didn’t feel formal action was appropriate, that he had made the mistake and it had been a huge and costly one. He was happy to enter into an informal mediation to repair any potential breakdown in the work relationship and to put the whole incident behind him. The manager however still received a final written warning for his inappropriate behaviour and lack of procedure for dealing with an issue.

Some of you may say ‘that’s harsh’, others, that he should have been dismissed; and each of you may be right, but it all stands or falls on the facts of the matter, and on the company policy and procedure for dealing with conflict that is in place.

ACAS has a great guide to help companies formulate and implement such practical things to deal with everyday issues to major conflicts. They talk about how to spot the signs of conflict, the causes and how to manage it.

Let’s remember that conflict at work can take on many forms. It may be that two workers simply don’t get on; a manager and an employee in a fiery dispute such as described; or that an individual has a grievance against their manager. It even could be some form of rivalry between teams; or an apparent lack of trust and cooperation between large groups of employees and management.

So, how do you deal with conflict? ACAS state managing conflict between individuals often involves:
• Having a quiet word
• Investigating the problem informally
• Using internal procedures – for example, company procedures for dealing with grievances and or disciplinary policies
• Upgrading line management skills – particularly around handling difficult conversations
• Using a skilled mediator although you should be mindful when to use this as this in itself may create ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and your policies must cover what to do subsequently to repair any harm done to relationships
Ideas on how to manage conflict between groups is about:
• Improving the way the company communicates and consults with employees
• Improving employee engagement by forming some appropriate communication structures within the company to tackle problems – for example, working groups or staff councils
• Using problem-solving cycles to find joint solutions to such workplace problems as improving resilience or stress management
• Getting outside help such as the skilled mediator again

These are all positive ways in which to manage conflict in this pressured world we live in, to address issues before they blow out of hand, and prevent potential expensive litigation – either defending a Tribunal claim or and personal injury one. Remember, lashing out is not on the list, nor is behaving threateningly funnily enough.

So, do you have appropriate conflict management processes in place to protect and support your staff? For more help and advice about HR issues or employee development contact us at or follow us on twitter @3domSolutions