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Being able to handle conflict in the workplace is a skillset that every South African Manager needs to have. From a generic point of view, a certain amount of conflict is traditionally said to be a good thing, but too much of that good thing can derail teams, departments and eventually companies.

In a very specific South African context, conflict in the workplace has many dimensions, and more especially in the manufacturing, metals and engineering sector, where the divisions between white-collar and blue-collar workers can present Managers with multi-dimensional challenges such as culture, race, class, language, education and the historical legacy of an unjust system, namely apartheid. After all, South Africa continues to rank as being the most unequal society on earth. It is likely that no other country has as complicated a relationship within the work environment. Managers and leaders are at the forefront of these complexities, and sometimes these individuals have nowhere to hide.

When conflict arises, do South African Managers and Human Resource practitioners have the skills to employ effective conflict resolution? Imagine if all Managers and leaders were magically imbued with the wherewithal to handle conflict. The transformative change in company performance, sustainability and the economy overall would be remarkable. The achievement of that “big, hairy, audacious goal” would alleviate and then solve some of the country’s biggest challenges.  Companies and their leadership cannot ignore this vital skill. 

Conflict in the Workplace

What is conflict resolution in the workplace?

Most textbooks refer to conflict management as negating the ramifications of the downside of conflict and enhancing the upside of conflict. This very definition means managing and perhaps even manipulating conflict in all its forms for the betterment of team members and an organisation when conflict arises.

Understanding that conflict will occur is the first step in managing conflict within the workplace. As a Manager, be ready for the good, the bad and the ugly consequences and understand that people are inherently a set of values, perspectives and opinions that, when combined, can produce a work environment that is either toxic or harmonious. This reality is what makes the Manager’s job difficult – and why management is a discipline.

According to one theorist, there are five conventional management approaches to conflict resolution: integrating, obliging, dominating, avoiding and compromising. Another classifies approaches as either distributive or integrative, with the former focused on distributing a fixed number of positive outcomes between warring parties, and the latter as focused on integrating the opposing needs of the parties to create the best outcome for all involved.

In the South African context, it is critical to know what approach you need to deploy and in what situation. Here are five basic principles to stick to:

1. The Basics: Face to Face

No matter the approach, most experts agree that Face-to-Face engagement is always best. With technology all around us, it is easy to forget that communication is much more than words in an email, instructions or directives in policies and strategies. Human communication is based on tone, body language, listening, and emotion, all of which are invisible to technology and cold policy documents.  In this day and age, it is common for people to send a myriad of emails without even visiting someone’s office – all in the name of efficiency. When problems arise, the conflict seems to elevate as fast as it took to send that email, post a task, or leave a voicemail.

Fluid communication is key. Functional communication, albeit it quick, always loses the human element. Managers and leaders must always start from this realization, otherwise their team members automatically find ways to undermine a common objective.

2. Finding The Elusive Common Ground

A common objective is what everyone in a company is working towards. If this objective is not communicated, everything suffers – the working environment, morale, quality and eventually sales and the bottom line. A prime example of this was Foxconn in China, where people’s jobs were so specialized and unconnected to the bigger picture that employees didn’t know wat they were assembling, even though it was the product that would change the world forever – the first smartphone, Apple’s iPhone. The result for Foxconn was suicide nets and international condemnation.

In South Africa, disagreements often take place between white-collar and blue-collar workers or factory floor workers, mostly about wages and conditions of employment. In this tense environment, it is vitally important to create goodwill by communicating “close-up” – making sure that body language, tone and messaging are always spot-on and not tone deaf.

The illustration of connectedness to common ground must be stressed. If the company doesn’t produce at high levels, then our sustainability is in jeopardy. It is vital that all employees see themselves as being part of a team.

3. Towards Understanding Points of View

A team can easily fall apart if individuals don’t make an effort to understand one another’s point of view. In the rush to produce and manufacture to a timeframe, understanding points of view can be easily forgotten. The Manager’s role, when resolving conflict, is to provide a sounding board, be an active listener and promote respect and understanding between or among individuals and teams.

When initiating a project, for example, it is a good time to nip conflict in the bud by ensuring that team members know where each individual “is coming from”. Managers should be as inclusive as possible to give everyone a chance to share their ideas on implementation, approaches to deal with challenges and gain an insight into what their idea of success looks like.

Common Ground in Conflicts

4. Problem-Solving

Business is problem solving. Conflict management, problem solving and decision making are themes that are generally thought to be distinct, but they are actually interconnected. Therefore, creating conditions for effective problem-solving is vital for Managers – where the goal is to come to the best possible outcome of a problem on the basis of the best source or sources of information. In this environment, nothing should be sacrosanct: honesty and forthrightness should be valued, and all team members should be given the floor. Emotions should be managed during decision-making. The challenge asked of the Manager is to remember the core focus of conflict management, which is actually to reduce the effect of people’s emotions and make them think rationally.

Conflict Resolution

5. Work Environment

Protecting a harmonious work environment is key and once emotions are tamed, the work environment becomes stable and secure and decisions can be made more confidently. The bottom line is choosing and implementing the best decision, followed by a continuous review of the decision, making changes as quickly as possible, and providing feedback is the silent backbone of a business. It takes Managers to actively manipulate this backbone by becoming skilled at recognizing the many forms of conflict, be it leadership conflict, inter-dependency conflict, work-style differences, culture-based conflict or and personality clashes.

Conclusion

Conflict is inevitable. Conflict in a business can be used for good. Knowing how to manage conflict whilst ensuring that people maintain their efficacy within teams will always remain the challenge.