Talking about a resolution part one: Conflict at work - threat or opportunity?

I bet you’re thinking, isn’t it both: a threat and an opportunity? Of course, you would be right. So why is that we have become so bad at resolving disputes? Why is it that our managers and leaders find conflict so hard to handle? Why is it that so many employees are damaged by feuds and quarrels that should have been nipped in the bud but have instead escalated to a level that no one wanted and no one benefits from?

In this series of insight articles, I will explore why the time has come for organisations to take the grief out of grievance and adopt a new approach to dispute resolution.

Unresolved conflict is a barrier to business success

Unresolved workplace conflicts are one of the most significant barriers to business performance. Conflict creates uncertainty. It generates fear and it creates stress. Unresolved conflicts at work can drain resources, undermine team working, stifle innovation and act as a major block at times of change or transformation. The costs of conflict run to an estimated £33billion each year according to the Confederation of British Industry. Each grievance takes up to seven days management time and 370 million days are lost each year due to conflict, stress and bullying according to the CIPD.

However, psychologists including Dr Bruce Tuckman, argue that conflict (storming) is a normal stage in team development . So why do we get it so wrong? As a mediator, my experience leads me to conclude that it is not conflict that is the problem; it is the way that we handle it.

Taking the grief out of grievance

The traditional grievance procedure offers a one size fits all approach to dispute resolution. The very term “grievance” is unhelpful as it conjures up words such as blame, hostility, betrayal, loss of control and sanction. Grievance procedures are predominantly concerned with the rights, rather than the interests, of the parties. They are reactive, they are inherently adversarial and they are all about winners and losers. It’s binary justice. Rather than encouraging dialogue, grievance procedures harden positions and polarise the parties. Let’s not forget that this is the procedure of choice for resolving disputes in the majority of UK organisations.

It is time for a radical rethink of dispute resolution within our organisations. We need a new vernacular to define these issues and we urgently need a new way to handle and resolve them.

Putting resolution into the heart of your business

In May last year, I launched my Model Resolution Policy at the Law Society in front of over 100 companies, all of whom were hungry for change. The Model Resolution Policy does the following:

  • It provides a timely and effective alternative to grievance procedures.
  • It develops a robust triage and dispute diagnostic framework for HR.
  • It normalises dialogue and collaboration as preferred mechanisms for resolving disputes.
  • It offers mediation at all stages of a dispute.
  • It develops conflict resilient workplaces.

 Large organisations including Royal Mail, Marks and Spencer and BT amongst many, many others are now resolving issues using dialogue and interest based problem solving. I have been helping many organisations reframe how they handle grievances with incredible results:

"Everyone has a right to work in an environment of mutual respect, dignity and support. The TCM Model Resolution Policy is a positive move to attaining this. This Policy will help to transform the way workplace disputes are managed and in turn will change the working lives for the staff working within the Council. As a trade union representative, and also as a staff member, I am keen on the implementation of such a positive approach for managing disputes in the workplace."

Liz Skinner
Unison Steward and Service Conditions Officer
A large County Council

In my next article, I will explore how HR Professionals are using mediation to resolve disputes and to drive collaborative business practices.


The TCM group delivers training, consultancy and mediation services to some of the world’s leading organisations. To find out more either visit or call 0800 294 9787.

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