Conflict Management and Prevention

My wife and I occasionally reminisce about life when our kids were little. There were occasions when they got into fights with each other or with their mates in the neighbourhood. What’s interesting is how we responded. One of the kids would come inside in tears and plead with us to right the wrong that threatened to change their life forever. My response was, almost without fail, to ask them what happened, try and figure out who was responsible and inflict some sort of punishment or impose some sort of sanction. Like:

• Apologise and I’ll give the ball back.

• Right. I’ve told you a thousand times. In your room and don’t come out ‘til I say so.

Or variations on the theme. In essence, what we often do as parents when kids misbehave or harm each other, is undertake a mini-investigation, determine who the guilty party is and impose a sanction.

Then the kids went to school. I spent ten years as a schoolteacher, both in Primary and Secondary schools. What do you think happens when students misbehave? In case you’ve forgotten, the school carried out an investigation, identified the guilty students and imposed a sanction. And sanctions ranged from detention through to suspension and expulsion and a myriad of minor sanctions such as time in the Deputy’s office, sessions with the school counsellor, meetings with parents and so on.

When anti-social behaviour occurs in the community, police behave like parents and teachers: they undertake an investigation to find out who did it and then hand them over to the court to impose a sanction or punishment. And when conflict and disharmony occur in the workplace, managers undertake an investigation, insist that the warring parties not engage with each other, attempt to find out who did what to whom and then impose a sanction.

It seems that in most walks of life, this is how we respond to conflict and unhelpful behaviour. But things are changing, at least in education and criminal justice. People in these jurisdictions have been looking long and hard at how we think about conflict and crime and have been changing the way they respond. Not so in the workplace. The preferred response to workplace conflict is still to undertake an investigation and impose an outcome, or to use mediation, which is designed more for settling disputes than for transforming conflict.

People still feel aggrieved and dissatisfied at the end of most processes used to respond to workplace conflict. The reason is we’re still trying to answer the wrong set of questions. In education and justice, they’re moving away from the constraints imposed by “who did what to whom and what do we have to do to them”, and moving towards asking:

• What happened?

• How has it affected people?

• What can be done to fix any hurt and harm?

• What can we learn from it, so we take something positive out of the conflict?

These alternative questions are liberating in significant ways. They don’t assume:

• a single culprit, or a simple set of circumstances,

• the manager or supervisor will always know exactly what’s needed to resolve the conflict,

• keeping people apart will fix the problem,

• it’s all about the facts,

• everyone experiences things the same way.

Introducing Restorative Practices to the Workplace

These new questions come out of a discipline known as Restorative Justice, an approach to unfair and harmful behaviour that understands conflict as an opportunity to bring people together and strengthen the system of relationships rather than fragment it. It is perfectly suited to workplace conflict.

Most workplaces respond to conflict and unhelpful behaviour by suggesting people make a formal complaint or grievance so the employer or manager can undertake an investigation, determine who is in the wrong and impose some sanction or response. Or if your workplace is considered progressive or even a preferred employer, then maybe you get access to an alternative dispute resolution process of some sort.

When we reflect on how similar the criminal justice, discipline and management systems are, it makes sense to pay closer attention to the most exciting innovation in criminal justice (and education) in the last few hundred years.

That innovation is Restorative Conferencing and it’s been steadily bringing about change for the better in reducing reoffending, improving victim satisfaction and increasing people’s confidence in the system, while saving governments vast amounts of money in the process.

What is Restorative Conferencing?

Restorative Conferencing is a particular form of Restorative Justice and has been defined as “… a process whereby all those affected by a conflict, have an opportunity to come together and discuss how they have been affected by the conflict, and to decide what can be done to repair any hurt and harm. Restorative Justice is about the idea that because conflict hurts, justice should heal. It follows that conversations with those who have been hurt and with those who have inflicted the harm, must be central to the process” John Braithwaite (2004).

Braithwaite’s definition of Restorative Justice aligns perfectly with our process known as Restorative Conferencing, which has been quietly used in workplaces in Canada, the UK and Australia for the last 20 years. When conflict occurs at work, rather than launch a full scale investigation to try and determine the facts and identify the guilty parties, Restorative Conferencing, while not ignoring what led to the conflict, turns its focus to how people have been affected.

CONFLICT is never about the facts. It’s always about the FEELINGS.

It’s a diagnostic distinction. Conflictus, the Latin from which the word conflict evolved, literally meant the clashing together of swords. What keeps conflict going is how we feel about what has happened, not actually what has happened. So any exhaustive search for the facts through an investigation will do little to resolve the conflict, and will often make things worse. A dispute on the other hand can be resolved by a process such as mediation. The Latin, disputare, is instructive. It means to clean up the mess or clear up the misunderstanding. It implies a willingness to cooperate. There’s an important diagnostic distinction to be made between a conflict and a dispute. What’s desperately needed in workplaces worldwide, in addition to the skills to prevent conflict occurring in the first place,(see our High Performing Teams material) is the expertise to know how to diagnose and respond to it effectively and efficiently. That’s where we have a lot to learn from the significant changes Restorative Justice theory and practice are bringing to our criminal justice and education systems. The benefits of this approach offer even greater potential for change when applied to workplace conflict.

I was recently presenting a paper on workplace conflict, to a large group of senior managers, human resource professionals and supervisors from a cross section of workplaces. I asked those present to raise their hands if they ever had to deal with conflict in their workplace. Every hand went up.

I then asked them to leave their hand up, if they responded by hiring an independent investigator to determine what had happened.. Almost every hand in the room stayed up. I then asked them to leave their hand up if the money they spent on the investigation lead to the resolution of the conflict. Every hand went down.

It is this obsession with determining the facts and imposing a solution on people that continues to hold us back when dealing with workplace conflict.

There is an urgent need to take on the lessons of other jurisdictions when it comes to preventing and responding to conflict amongst people in the workplace. This is where the Restorative Conferencing message becomes important to anyone with an interest or responsibility in building more robust, respectful workplace cultures. And it’s not necessary to start by tackling the whole workplace at once.

Take the phrase Think Globally, Act Locally. Every time a section or team within your workplace, experiences conflict where people feel resentful and mistrustful of others, and are distressed by what they’re experiencing, an opportunity opens up to strengthen that system of relationships at the local level, rather than let it continue to fragment. We do not achieve this by undertaking a search for the facts, so we can lay blame and impose a sanction or punishment. So how do we use any and every conflict at work, to strengthen fragmenting systems of relationships? The answer lies in paying attention to the way people are left feeling by what has happened and building on that. This is the key to Restorative Conferencing in the workplace.

Restorative Conferencing is a process designed to turn workplace conflict into workplace cooperation.

Restorative Conferencing accommodates the complexity in systems of relationships, the politics of the workplace, the resentments and deep feelings that define workplace conflict, the fragility of individual circumstance, the mental health needs of those affected, the requirements of the organisation or business, the challenge in changing habits, and the threat of failure. Responses to workplace conflict regularly fail as we attempt to apply simple solutions to complex problems. For example there will almost always be a minimum of three groups in every workplace conflict: the people who line up on one side, those who line up on the other side, and a third group who try to act as if nothing is happening. And often there can be splinter groups and individuals who are connected to all sides. Our propensity to gossip and circulate negative stories about each other, our difficulty in challenging these stories or pulling our friends up, our inability to give constructive feedback to each other and our anxiety about confronting those who cause us to feel unhappy, all allow conflicts to fester and cooperation to suffer.

RJ Conferencing puts the way we feel about each other and our workplace at the heart of the process. This is where the action is for us as human beings and if we want to successfully transform workplace conflict into workplace cooperation, we need a process that focuses on feelings while not ignoring the facts. RJ Conferencing is that process. It allows acknowledgement of the harm that inappropriate and harmful behaviour has caused, an exploration and understanding of the consequences of that behaviour and the development of an agreement to transform the conflict into a plan for cooperation.

RJ Conferencing has been subject to more experimental research and evaluation studies than any other single initiative with Randomized Controlled Trials and before and after studies in Australia, Canada, South Africa, the UK and the USA.

It has been used continually in Australian workplaces since 1996 and Canadian workplaces since the year 2000 with little fanfare and dramatic results. Its application to workplace conflict is now being studied by academics with an interest in its capacity to change the way we respond to conflict at work. You’ll be hearing a lot more about Restorative Conferencing as it applies to workplaces and for us that’s long overdue.