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How to Solve Conflicts at Work

And what should we do? When an employee lies crying on your desk, and lets you know that this despair is about a conflict at work? The employee needs support, and you might be in the position to give advice. A simple piece of advice can be all this person needs. You, as a potential helper, should find out:
© University of Bergen/Authors: B.E. Moen, G. Tjalvin

Keyboard with "Your way" written on one key, "My way" written on another It can be difficult to agree on how to solve things at work. We have different opinions © Colourbox

Solving Conflicts in Different Countries

Solving conflicts might happen differently in working environments in different countries. The freedom of the workers is different in different countries. Some places have no room for conflict resolution when the leader of the company or the department is involved. Still, some general advice on conflict solving are given here:

Helping to Solve Conflicts at Work

And what should we do? When an employee lies crying on your desk, and lets you know that this despair is about a conflict at work? The employee needs support, and you might be in the position to give advice. A simple piece of advice can be all this person needs. You, as a potential helper, should find out:

a) Has the worker spoken to the person in question about the problem? In many cases, the employee has not done that. If not, how can there be any improvement, when no one knows the employee is suffering? Employees are advised to talk about the problem with the person in question.

b) Does the employee need help raising the issue with the person in question? Or has this been done already, and nothing has happened? If this has been tried without effect, you can advise the employee to bring with him a safety representative and/or the work place representative and ask for a new meeting. Health personnel and personnel in an occupational health service can also be of assistance in these types of meetings.

Conflict at Work – Follow Up

In many cases a conflict can arise in a company and include many persons. You may learn about this in different ways; through meetings with employees or through information from single workers. It is important to be aware of the fact that the management leader is the correct person to contact, in order to make things happen. If an occupational health service exists, they must inform the management and give advice to the management as to what needs to be done. This can be a delicate affair because employees might have told the occupational health service things in confidence which they cannot bring forward. On the other hand, this confidence between the employee and the company doctor, or other health personnel presents a unique situation for receiving information about stress- and conflicting relations in the business. Here the personnel need to agree beforehand with the patient/client on what they as health personnel can say and do before moving forward, in order not to break the patients’ confidentiality.

a) The conflict must be recognised. It might sound strange that not everybody involved by a conflict recognises it, or sees the emotional and destructive side of the conflict. However, this is not unusual. Leaders are not always informed about what is going on or understand what is happening. The background for this can be that the conflict provokes feelings of discomfort which the leader is trying to avoid. Often there will be an underlying assessment where the leader minimizes the conflict, or has chosen to put off doing something about it because conflicts often disappear in time

One large person is yelling at a small person through a megaphone This leadership style is not recommended. © Colourbox

b) The role of the leader:
The leader is a central person in any conflict in his or her business. The leader can provoke a conflict through their leadership style, decisions and dispositions, or because they do not manage contradictions and conflicts present in their area of responsibility efficiently.

Angry Tiger If the leader is as angry as this tiger, it is difficult to establish a good communication. A “tiger leadership” with anger is not useful at the workplaces. © Colourbox

Solutions to Conflicts at Work

Roughly speaking, we have two main types of conflict solutions.

a) Process-oriented approach
Here, you start with the conflict process, how the parties in the conflict influence this process and each other through their respective reactions. This is also called a psychological approach. Since conflicts always are expressed through people’s reactions, it is normal to approach the conflict by trying to move the parties to change their attitudes and relations to the topic that has created the conflict, by trying to give the parties insight in the conflict process and how they by their behaviour can affect this. By this type of insight, new and future conflicts can be avoided. This work happens by talking to the parties separately, together and maybe in a group setting.

BrightIdeas Positive agreement. © University of Bergen

b) Administrative approach
By an administrative conflict solving approach, you start by looking at what in the company is causing or nurturing the conflict. You try to solve the conflict by changing the conditions that causes the conflict. Examples of conditions causing conflict in an organisation can for instance be unclear responsibilities and authority, the allocation of scarce or limited resources, decisions that have no acceptance among employees, inconsistent personnel policies, lack of transparency and security, incompetent management and so on.

Three people trying to solve a conflict_5.8_IMG_0047.JPG The mediator can help in solving a conflict. © G. Tjalvin

Mediator Role

The function as mediator is central in all conflict work. The mediator is someone who is not involved in the conflict, but can help to arrange meetings to solve the conflict. The occupational health service must assess their own competency when entering a particular conflict-work, whether their own work situation is suitable for entering the particular conflict-work, whether the mediator work is hazardous in relation to their role as occupational health service for the company and whether they have adequate legitimacy and independence in relation to the company. One option is to bring in an external mediator; and this is often a good option. There are many different consultancy companies offering these types of services.

© University of Bergen/Authors: B.E. Moen, G. Tjalvin
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Occupational Health in Developing Countries

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