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January 2008: How to turn a simple misunderstanding into a major conflict

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How to turn a simple misunderstanding into a major conflict
At Human Law Mediation we’re all in favour of sharing ideas for conflict resolution but as trainers in mediation we also know that the best way to learn a new approach is sometimes to look at how not to do things.

This month therefore we’ve taken a case study approach to look at how you can all too easily turn a simple misunderstanding into a costly business conflict.

Consideration of what happened here, and whether you are guilty yourself of making any of the same mistakes might help you develop your own positive approach to handling personnel or business disputes effectively.

Setting the scene
Some years ago a small five partner accountancy firm employed a newly qualified accountant, let’s call him David. Initially David did well, he seemed to fit in, he was good with clients and he worked hard. But towards the end of his first year with the firm, things began to go wrong. David started to make mistakes, he was sometimes late for work and the odd client complained about calls not being returned. In particular his relationship with his supervisor, John deteriorated.

Turning a drama into a crisis
By following these simple, and all too common, steps a small matter of supervision and performance management became a matter for an industrial tribunal.

‘I’m too busy to deal with this’
Any business relationship requires nurturing. That between a member of staff and a supervisor needs time and attention. When it was quite clear that something was not right with David, John was too busy focusing on his own work to do anything about it.

Some supervisors might take the view that it’s up to their staff to deal with their own issues. But as a manager or supervisor there’s a duty to identify problems before they escalate, to offer advice and support and to proactively manage an individual where there’s under performance.

‘If I ignore the problem it’ll all go away’
An inexperienced or untrained manager might take the view that in order to avoid conflict it’s best to ignore it and hope the problem goes away. This sounds a little silly but is consistently present in my experience of business. In this instance John did not seek to address the issues until it is was too late. John appreciated that there was a problem with David’s work but did not take steps to deal with it.

‘What an idiot – I’m going to tell him what for’
In my experience people are either too weak or too aggressive when they deal with conflict. We live in a society which still favours aggression and we have a legal system which is adversarial in nature. In this case when John did start to take action, when he wanted to take legitimate steps to protect the reputation of the firm due to the poor performance of David, he started using unpleasant language and making it a highly personal issue. As a consequence the conflict was inflamed.

‘I’m sure he does this just to annoy me’
You may be annoyed that something hasn’t been done or has been done incorrectly – but put annoyance to one side and think logically. In this case at all stages when John dealt with the problem he focused on what wound him up and lost any sense of perspective. He made it personal, and it wasn’t personal, it was business.

‘That’s it, I’m putting it in the hands of our solicitors, they can get rid of him’
Of course it can be necessary to use lawyers at some point. In this case they were called in when John decided he couldn’t resolve the problems with David’s performance and he had to be dismissed.

Notice John called in the lawyers before trying to talk things through with David. Did this improve the situation? Of course not. Instead an already tense situation was made worse.

Where it ended up
The consequence in this case was that David was dismissed. But that’s not the end of the story. David launched a claim for unfair dismissal, both parties ended up spending £10,000 each in legal fees. David’s once promising career was brought to a halt and the firm’s reputation was damaged. I’m sure you would agree there were no winners, only losers in this scenario – due largely to the incompetent handling of the conflict by the manager in question.

Getting it right
All this could have been avoided by following this, slightly more sensible, approach to performance management and conflict resolution:

  • Make time and try to nip problems in the bud
  • Actively manage the situation – don’t let things get out of control
  • Stay calm, don’t make it personal and remain professional in your approach at all times
  • Talk through the problem with all parties, fully understand the issues before calling in the lawyers – use a mediator if you don’t feel this is possible without independent help.

Justin Patten of Human Law Mediation works with businesses and firms of solicitors to train their people in conflict resolution and mediation techniques. He is an accredited mediator, trainer and a solicitor and is available to conduct a mediated approach to business disputes.

Contact Justin Patten on 0844 800 3249.

Curve   Curve

New Year’s Resolutions

Next time you are in conflict situation stop and think before you fire off an irate email, start criticising the other party or threaten to take the matter to court.
Aim to resolve business disputes more quickly and at less cost in 2008.
Learn some of the skills to make you a good mediator or better still undertake formal mediation training.
Try mediation instead of litigation to resolve work place disputes.
Use your mediation skills at home - with your family to resolve all those arguments about the remote control.

May I wish all our readers a Happy New Year


Justin Patten
Mediator and Trainer

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