Can conflict management approaches help to resolve the public sector industrial relations dispute?

December 5th, 2011

Do the normal rules apply?

Clearly there are complex issues here which are being played out very publicly. There are also large numbers of people and interest groups involved who are communicating in ways which are particularly unhelpful and leading to greater conflict. However an understanding of how conflict arises and what steps can be taken to resolve conflict can in my view help.

Understanding what conflict is

Conflict is a difference of opinion or viewpoint, if the difference in view is not accepted then problems can arise. Viewpoints are influenced by our view of the world and our  experience. It is not a question of right or wrong, simply a difference of opinion. Put very simplistically, the difference of viewpoint here is that those in the private sector find it difficult to understand the strength of feeling given the pain that they themselves have already suffered by wage cuts, job losses and reduction in value of their own pensions. They do not see why the public sector should have gold-plated pensions paid for by public funds. On the other side there are those doing some of the most challenging and difficult jobs for public benefit, who are already on low pay and who are outraged that their pensions are now under attack. Also, without emotion conflict does not exist, even without the furore about Jeremy Clarkson’s comments, there were already high emotions on both sides.

How can conflict be resolved?

It is difficult to understand what the truth is from the news reports and posturing statements from both sides, but most suggest that there has been little real dialogue or attempts to really understand each others position. Also the “sound bite” statements you hear from both sides use language that is unhelpful and which deepens the divide.

Central to resolving any conflict situation is to focus on the needs and interests of the parties in dispute and a skilled facilitator will get the parties to focus on interests and try to help identify issues or needs that are common to both.  In this context, could these include financial security, fairness, lack of disruption to families lives and business and a need for each party to show that they are not giving in and are fighting for their members or voters?

There is often a need for the parties to give vent to their feelings of anger and resentment before they can move forward to considering solutions for the future.

There clearly needs to be some mechanism for each side to understand the others position and in particular the needs and interests of the other.  A reluctance to engage in meaningful dialogue will clearly not achieve this.

Thomas-Kilmann has identified five different approaches to handling conflict;

  • competing – the goal is to win
  • avoiding – the goal is to delay
  • compromising – the goal is to find a middle ground
  • collaborating – the goal is to find a win-win solution
  • accommodating – the goal is to yield.

From what you see from the news reports both sides appear to be in the competing or avoiding category; collaborating would be the holy grail but a move towards compromising would clearly help to resolve the conflict.

Whilst I am not suggesting that the solution here is an easy one, in my view, these basic principles can apply here. What is required is strong leadership from both sides and an indication that each is willing to enter into meaningful dialogue.  Each side should then “seek first to understand, then to be understood” (listen more than they speak) and adopt a compromising approach to conflict. A very skilled independent arbitrator or facilitator would clearly be helpful in achieving this.

Sounds all too easy doesn’t it?

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One Response

  1. Hi Alison,

    One of the biggest problems with conflict management is that it is usually left until the last minute to introduce it, i.e. once there is a full blown dispute and everyone’s back is up. When this arises people get into entrenched positions very easily and find it hard to get to a collaborative space where they can look at interests rather than stay in positions.

    I believe that a solution to this is to introduce Integrated Conflict Management Systems where conflict management becomes an integral and daily task of the organisation and everybody in it. People are therefore more used to dealing with conflict when it first occurs and not waiting until it has escalated to a dispute.



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The report was very professional, it dealt with all the issues raised and was particularly thorough. It clearly took the time to fully understand all of the issues and background. It was complex but the report really helped to break it down and I’m hoping we can progress in a positive manner following the recommendations.

Group HR Manager, Energy Sector |

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