Workplace Mediation 101 – Identifying conflict

Conflicts do not appear out of the blue. They arise from social tension that builds up, and if not properly identified, can escalate, and become destructive.

We can broadly identify three levels of conflicts:

The everyday difficult relationships that will always arise between people. A conflict with a colleague, tensions in a team, rumours spreading in the office, etc. These are situations that everyone has encountered at some point and that will always reappear. Yet, they should never be ignored as they are often the initial manifestation of underlying difficulties.

Open conflicts are complex internal tensions that often spread further than the parties. Situations often include bullying, discrimination, team-wide conflict, etc. If not tackled quickly, they can be quite harmful for an organisation as it distracts people from their work, creates resentment, reduces employee satisfaction and increases stress.

Finally, there is the explosive conflict. This is the complex and long-lasting dispute that has already damaged relationships and is starting to become very expensive in terms of lost time, loss of goodwill and potential legal fees. Disciplinary and capability procedures are engaged, trade unions have probably taken a stance, and relationships are so damaged that seeking a positive outcome seems impossible. If not treated carefully, they will inevitably lead to an employment tribunal.

The reality is never so simple as to have clear steps in conflicts, but the above represent landmarks in the evolution of workplace disputes. These can evolve slowly, taking years before finally coming to a head; others can come much faster. In the majority of cases, conflict builds up from unspoken difficulties and underlying differences. If identified early on, they can be defused and working relationships may go on peacefully. But, if they are identified at a later stage, they can still be resolved. But the later they are managed, the harder they are to resolve, and the more expensive they become for an organisation

Let’s look at an example to illustrate this point. The following story has been completely anonymised but is based on a real-life situation I recently witnessed.

Unspoken discrimination

Our factory is a male-only environment. Not that we don’t hire women, none have even applied… or qualified for the job. It has always been like this and it created a particular culture. It was not a problem for them to have ‘ladies swimwear calendars’ hanging on the walls. Nor did it seem a problem when they were being paid for by the company. The guys were happy with it, even grateful for us providing them with their vision of a ‘pleasant working environment’. One woman from our administrative office next to the factory did complain about it being insulting. But she had no reason to go into the factory.

And then, out of nowhere, five of our female staff complained about sexual harassment and discrimination. This created a real crisis in the office. Sickness leave increased from female staff, there was real tension between many men and women, we lost half of our marketing team in two months. The HR Director stopped paying for the calendars… but the new female staff we hired were told about what happened by those who had stayed…”

Writing this, I have the feeling it looks like a bad caricature… What’s dramatic is that this is a real situation I witnessed a year ago… This company had no real Human Resources Department, only an HR Assistant present half of the week, and an HR Director who came by once or twice a week and stayed locked in his office. They never had the idea to measure employee satisfaction, to have proper feedback systems to understand problems, nor any option for dialogue within the organisation. They did not measure the consequences of their decisions, did not manage conflict when it came out, ignored complaint hoping they would just disappear… and ended up with a terrible crisis on their hands, not only losing staff, time and money, but creating a poisonous workplace environment.

Even though few organisations will go through such grotesque situations as the one above, it is not uncommon that early tensions are ignored by managers hoping they will just go away. And even when they do disappear, they should not be ignored as they are often only the tip of the iceberg. Conflicts that come to light are a chance to improve the organisation as a whole. Wisely analysed and managed, they bring forward underlying tensions that would otherwise reappear at a more difficult stage.

One of the most effective ways to manage all degrees of conflict in the workplace is to have the correct procedures in place, implemented by team leaders and managers trained as workplace mediators. To learn more about becoming a workplace mediator, contact Joachim Muller at

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