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Workplace Disputes
by Kenneth Cloke

Every modern workplace seethes with disputes.
Conflicts between employees and supervisors, supervisors and management, employees and the public, co-workers, secretaries and their bosses, doctors and nurses, union representatives and industrial relations departments, manufacturing and shipping, people who are creative and people who are practical, those who are "hang-loose" and those who are "up-tight," those who talk but don't listen and those who listen but don't talk, etc.--all these disputes are a regular and on-going part of virtually every work environment.

Almost one quarter of management's time is spent resolving Conflicts
A survey conducted by the American Management Association, revealed that managers spend at least 24 percent of their time at work resolving conflicts. The survey also showed that conflict resolution had become more important over the last 10 years, and that conflict resolution was either more important or equally important with planning, communication, motivation and decision-making. In most large work sites, 24 percent is a low-end figure, particularly when minor everyday disputes are included.

Causes of Conflict
The principle causes of conflict within organizations were identified as: misunderstanding (communication failure), personality clashes, value and goal differences, substandard performance, differences over method, responsibility issues, lack of cooperation, authority issues, frustration and irritability, competition for limited resources, and non-compliance with rules and policies.

Conflict's Role
While conflict is considered counter-productive, it may also be positive and beneficial in that it can clarify goals, relieve tensions, open communications and resolve problems. In its negative form, conflict can direct energy from real tasks, decrease productivity, reduce morale, prevent cooperation, aggravate minor differences, polarize points of view, encourage irresponsible behavior, generate suspicion and mistrust, obstruct communication, increase tension and stress, obscure goals, and result in loss of valuable human resources.

Responses to Conflict:
At the workplace, there are generally a limited number of responses to conflict when it occurs, some of which are to:

1.) Ignore it.
Withdrawal or retreat from conflict is perhaps the most common workplace response, as involvement in conflict is potentially job-threatening. This not only leaves the underlying problem unresolved, it may create greater problems through neglect, and encourage irresponsibility.

2.) Dodge it. Referring the problem to someone else is no different from ignoring it.

3.) Cover-up. Most managers, without training in conflict resolution, will first attempt to smooth it over, generally by "oiling the squeaky wheel," or suppressing the discontent. Neither of these strategies helps in the long run, and may increase the level of conflict.

4.) Decide the issue yourself. Assuming that the function of management is to resolve disputes, it is common for managers to bulldoze the conflict and resolve it for the participants. Yet resolution by fiat is dangerous and often counter-productive, as the manager may not know all the facts, and may later appear foolish or stupid, or incur the resentment and hostility of either or both the participants.

5.) Litigate it. Another common method is to let the dispute proceed to grievance or arbitration. The only outcome here will be a win/lose result in which one party will suffer at the hands of the other, while the truth may lie somewhere in between.

6.) Compromise. The most effective solution is to identify the parties' real interests and search for compromise solutions that will convert the outcome to win/win.

Importance Of Third Party Mediation
The most effective method of compromise is mediation, in which an outside neutral party assists the parties in discussing their problems, communicating with one another, and negotiating for a mutually agreeable, voluntary solution. Managing workplace disputes through mediation returns the responsibility for a solution to the parties who began the dispute. This allows participants to reveal possible "hidden agendas" -- emotional concerns which may have nothing to do with the dispute -- and to generate solutions which may fit their particular needs.

Fostering Communication
Mediation encourages each party to listen and understand the others' position, it promotes real communication, minimizes personality conflicts, structures interactions to prevent interpersonal conflict, reduces stress, and encourages mutual compromise. It allows feelings to surface, validates concerns, promotes individual responsibility and encourages cooperation and friendship. It generally succeeds over 90 percent of the time, with fewer enforcement problems because the agreement is voluntary.

Rather than being perceived solely as an inhuman "supervisor" or an arrogant trouble-making "employee," mediation encourages communication on a direct human level. In mediation, the individual is not subordinated to the outcome, but helps to create it. Responsibility is then not on someone else, but on the parties themselves.

Practical Solutions
Mediation is also completely confidential, and is future-oriented. It is less concerned with deciding who was right or wrong than with straightening out the problem so it does not occur again.
The focus in mediation is on practical solutions, and on the emotional issues which may need to be ventilated even when they cannot be resolved. Often what the parties want most is simply to be listened to.

Mediation can help to resolve almost any kind of conflict, including the interpersonal problems which occur in every workplace -- the personal dislikes and jealousies, the personality conflicts and problems in communication, the perceived hostilities of others and conflicting interests in job performance or goals. These conflicts disrupt productivity, yet are left to smoulder, forcing employees to suffer in silent rage, or to express their frustration or anger in some counter-productive way, as through illness, resignation, disruption, violence, retribution, strike or slow-down.

Explore Alternative Ways Of Thinking
In any workplace, it is better to surface these tensions and allow the parties to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting which will avoid disruptive results, than to ignore their inter-personal problems and assume they will go away, or to force a solution from above.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come
For these reasons, mediation is a valuable technique for the resolution of workplace disputes, and a useful adjunct plan which aims at increasing employee satisfaction and job productivity, while improving the quality of work life. Its voluntary, non-coercive character makes it non-threatening to the parties, while its lower cost, rapidity and simplicity make it attractive to both employers and unions. It is an idea whose time has come.

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