A recent article in HR Monthly online discussed how to stop workplace conflicts before there was an “irretrievable breakdown” in the relationship between the parties involved. The article calls for “mending fences before things get out of hand” citing a paper ‘Challenges to mediation in Australian Workplaces‘ which was presented by Peter O’Brien and Paula Bruce in 2010 at the National Mediation Conference.

Bruce is one of iHR Australia’s Senior Workplace Relations Advisor who has been supporting organisations with her skill and expertise since 1999 to achieve conflict resolution both through models of early intervention such as mediation, education and collaboration and by conducting workplace behaviour reviews/audits and investigations when necessary. Bruce is a panel member with NSW Law Society and has developed pilot mediation programs for Local, District and Federal Magistrates Courts.

As a practicing lawyer who deals with conflict professionally, Bruce says we have a choice: harness the power of conflict to reach better outcomes or allow conflict to evolve in unpredictable and often negative ways.

The paper she co-authored with O’Brien focuses on the research of 40 cases of workplace disputes in NSW which included the discussion of three issues – communication, issues around the work itself, and aspects of relationship. In some but not all cases, other challenges identified included trust, the role of supervision, stress, leadership, aspects relating to the team, allegations of bullying and harassment.

In an article Bruce wrote for the Law Society NSW Journal (LSJ) in July this year, Bruce says they also discovered a significant overlap between workplace and family conflict – when workplace conflicts can be triggered by displaced external issues carried over into the work environment by one party. External sources of conflict such as family breakdown or financial stress cannot be addressed in workplace mediation, but it is helpful to be mindful of this possibility during any initial discussions so that appropriate referrals can be made.

The key findings of the research paper reveal a need for modes of mediation to be robust, effective and efficient. “The model applied must be able to handle conflicts of many types and to deliver outcomes which themselves are robust, valued and become entrenched in the workplace and are persistent. Workplaces need structured models of mediation,” says Bruce.

O’Brien and Bruce also identified in their findings the necessity for workplace dispute resolution responses to have a more varied and broader approach to issues. An effective conflict management system would involve and offer a set of interventions that may include, for example, conflict coaching, team reviews, skills for conflict competence and investigations.

According to Bruce, early intervention is always the best when it can be achieved. As soon as a concern is reported, speak to the parties, understand and acknowledge their wants and needs, and together develop an understanding of the facts. In her LSJ article, Bruce writes further that unmanaged anxiety triggers reactive responses we often regret which take us away from skilled communication and prevents us from staying engaged when challenged. Facts are irrelevant in such an environment and stress levels increase as those involved reciprocate.

If the timing is not right, the issue may not be totally resolved but at least steps will have been taken to address and reduce the risk. When an issue needs to be resolved, Bruce advises to plan ahead as the results rarely exceed the quality of the contract made to resolve the issue.

This is one of the reasons why Bruce advocates building “conflict competency” skills, which engages both our EQ and IQ, to increase our personal ability to handle complexity. “The three main skills of conflict competency: self-awareness, consideration and collaboration can be taught. People who are “conflict competent” are able to manage their emotions more effectively, slow down and reflect on what is happening during a conflict, and engage with others constructively; reducing the likelihood of escalation or harm,” says Bruce.


At iHR Australia, we realise that managing conflict effectively is a personal and business advantage. Successful mediation can enhance and assist your organisation to stabilise ongoing internal and external working relationships and achieve better outcomes for parties involved. Clients rate our workplace mediation services first class – both responsive and professional in manner and documentation. We understand that disputes can involve people responding emotionally to sensitive issues. Accordingly, iHR Australia’s approach to mediation is consultative and tailored for each situation.

To equip your leadership and other employees to respond effectively to workplace conflicts, we also offer workplace mediator training where our expert Senior Workplace Relations Advisor will guide participants through the key principles of conducting an effective workplace mediation, focusing on best practice process and effective mediation skills.

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