Proactive approach the best approach in conflict management: Expert

by 20 Feb 2012

HR leaders continue to be overwhelmed with the work that comes from trying to manage workplace conflict and complaints. A recent study revealed that 98% of HR leaders are charged with handling conflict at work and in business environments – yet it is still poorly handled in many organisations.

Christina Turner, a 30-year veteran of the HR profession, said the most common issues of conflict manifest themselves in complaints of bullying, which is most commonly approached through a reactive investigative process of analysing evidence.

While workplace investigations do have their place – indeed Turner said there are times when it is not only appropriate but completely necessary to investigate serious complaints in this manner – she added that at the end of an investigation, the conflict is often still unresolved and is sometimes even worse after the process.

She added that while many organisations do have grievance policies in place, not enough have multiple options or alternatives for employees to resolve conflicts and are more likely to run with an investigation or mediation to manage conflict.

“Organisations need to look at an integrated conflict management system, so there are multiple options and entry points so employees can choose and have control,” she said.

Approaching the situation in an informal or low key manner can help prevent the conflict from escalating, Turner added.

One of the main problems managers face is poor communication. Often managers feel they don’t have the skills to give someone feedback or avoid the issue completely, causing the employee to feel ignored and isolated.  

“We need HR practitioners to challenge line managers in terms of taking a proactive approach to conflict rather than waiting for it to blow up,” Turner said.

After 20 years of conducting over 400 workplace investigations, Turner has seen that conflict can in fact be turned into a positive.

“Good things do come from conflict situations; it’s often where we get our learning,” she said. “I’m not sure though that we spend a lot of time capturing and analysing data around conflict in organisations, [and] I’m not sure we do appropriate debriefings after investigations or mediations.”

Christina Turner will be speaking about how to be proactive in conflict management at the Australian Institute of Management EXPO in Canberra, from Tuesday 21 February through to Thursday 23 February.

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- Jessica Cooper


  • by Bernie Althofer 23/02/2012 2:07:50 PM

    Most line managers and supervisors are required to communicate across a number of levels in an organisation. From time to time, conflict will occur. Given the potential for a 'relatively minor' issue involving communication to escalate into workplace conflict, and ultimately allegations of bullying and harassment, it is important that all workers be provided with the basic elements of communication and conflict resolution the workplace. There is little doubt the communication in a contemporary workplace involves not only written and verbal communication, but also the use of various electronic devices and systems. It would be easy to blame a number of aspects e.g. generational gaps and differences, workplace culture and the like. It might not be as easy as that. I suspect that there are systems and processes such as recruitment, selection, placement, inductions, performance management, role/job descriptions and the workplace environment that contribute to the potential for conflict. Having the will to change some or all of these systems might be difficult when there is an inherent belief regarding 'personality clashes' or one where workers who complain are viewed as whingers or malcontents. It might also be the case that there is a prevailing view that conflict should be 'swept under the carpet' and that if left alone, will gradually wilt and die a natural death. Yes, organisations do have policies and procedures regarding conflict resolution options. These organisations may also have well developed support networks e.g. Harassment Referral Officers, Peer Support Officers etc. However, if the workplace culture is such that conflict is viewed as a 'personality clash', and that conflict should be referred to HR for resolution, it seems that in some cases, line managers and supervisors might be leaving themselves exposed, particularly given the harmonisation of OHS laws.
    It is important to note that healthy conflict can have numerous advantages and in many cases, the reason why this works well, is that participants know and understand the rules of engagement. In cases where negative conflict escalates, it seems that individuals lack the required skills and abilities to manage either their own behaviours and conduct, or that of others.

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