Dispute resolution: Why bosses chicken out of tough decisions in the workplace

John McDonald of Proactive Resolutions is a specialist in workplace dispute resolution whose work forms the basis of the new Australian film ‘Face to Face’. He tells My Business that many workplace conflicts fester because managers lack dispute resolution skills and fear a confrontation.

Dispute resolution is not a skill many entrepreneurs think to develop before they go into business: it’s only natural to focus on things like product development, marketing and financial management.

When conflict strikes a workplace, many managers are unable to develop a response. Disputes can therefore run out of control and damage a business, says John McDonald of Proactive Resolutions, a specialist in workplace conflict resolution whose methods form the basis of a play by David Williamson and a new film, Face to Face, starring Matthew Newton, Vince Colosimo and Sigrid Thornton.

A scene from 'Face to Face'

“Most managers manage conflict by avoiding it,” McDonald told My Business. “It is hard to think of a conflict where management did not contribute to it at least by avoiding it.”

Workplace disputes aren’t always easy to detect. McDonald said “low level disrespectful behaviours” such as gossip, rumours, people withholding information from colleagues or one staff member isolating a fellow team member are signs of dispites. Behaviour like ignoring a colleague or failing to observe common courtesies such as greetings and farewells is another giveaway.

When managers detect this kind of behaviour, most don’t act because it is hard to know what to do when it arises.

“Most of us would rather crawl over broken glass than tell someone I am not happy with your performance,” McDonald said, adding that managers should instead proactively develop processes that will be used to resolve disputes long before any arise.

John McDonald

“You have to get together with your team and talk about how you will engage when things get tough,” he said. “We tend to wait until things get rough and then try to engage each other in conversation.” But once things get heated, he said, it’s hard to have the robust conversations needed to resolve a dispute.

“If you say I need to have a chat with you, you are immediately defensive,” McDonald said. “If you have an agreed template of how you are going to talk when things get rough and you give time to people to practice it, it’s easier when it happens.”

Small business, he said, needs processes in place even more than larger organisations, “because in small business you live in each other’s pockets.”

Dispute resolution processes

What to do if you need to step in and resolve a dispute?

Avoiding procrastination is imperative, McDonald said.

“If you were to ask people in an office if they would rather hear about it on the grapevine or hear it direct, most will say they would like to hear it direct,” he said. “The longer we don’t engage, the more treacherous we become.”

For the subject of the discussion, McDonald said it’s critical to enter the conversation in the right spirit.

“If I am the one being spoken to it takes courage not to answer back. You need to listen: managers do not get out of bed to give you a hard time.”

McDonald added that managers should not if that they don’t have good dispute resolution skills.

“It does not become any easier to deal with conflict or unsatisfactory performance just because you have become a manager,” he said. “But the good news is that the skills you need are classic soft skills for leadership. Be more attuned. Listen to and talk with your staff. There’s no rocket science in good management – it is just a case of being in touch with staff.”

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