How restorative practice can help solve conflict in your workplace

When conflict arises, what happens in your workplace? Is it ignored? Are people separated? Or does everyone just hope it will resolve on its own?

Workplaces are such unique environments, because people who would never normally come together are assembled in relatively small spaces and asked to get along for the better part of the day. 

Even though the goal is to achieve collective outcomes, people’s opinions and personal methods on what it means to “get the job done” are usually very different. 

This is why conflict or passive aggressive behaviour is so common in the workplace, and why the onus must be on leadership to learn about and employ positive practices that seek to mitigate it. 

Traditional vs new approaches to conflict management

50 years ago, conflict resolution in the workplace was a pretty cut and dry issue. People who did not “fit in” or were disliked by peers or managers were quickly given the boot, with no enquiry into why there was an issue at all. 

In recent years, industrial relations reforms and evolving management styles have played a large part in opening up the discussion on how we deal with workplace issues such as conflict. 

However, we still have a long way to go in “humanising” the conflict resolution process. 

This is where restorative practice can go a long way towards creating a workplace culture that is:

  • calm and considered
  • human-centric
  • empathetic

Restorative practice is a social science that aims to promote healthy relationships between people in group settings (such as schools and workplaces). The practice seeks to use proactive, rather than reactive, strategies which take into account people’s human nature. 

Consider these differences between a traditional and restorative approach to conflict management…

Traditional approachRestorative approach
Focus on rulesFocus on relationships
Focus on punishment, hostilityFocus on bringing people together for discussion 
Focus on separationFocus on providing a safe space for expressing opinions and emotion
Focus on the workplace as the “enforcer”  Focus on people identifying creative ways to mitigate or solve conflict, and promote understanding 

In this article on employment law, friend and former colleague Andrew Klein shared his thoughts on the value of restorative-type practices to avoid the potential for legal disputes between employers and employees. 

This insight is particularly relevant…

“I had a case that went on for years and the Commonwealth ended up spending north of $200,000 in fees. That’s on top of hours in staff costs taking affidavits, people involved telling their stories over and over again, stress and anxiety and lost productivity. It settled for well in excess of $100,000. After it had finished the complainant said to me, “If someone had come up and talked to me about this early, just sat down with me and had an honest conversation, I would have settled for a month’s pay and gone back to work”.

“Even in what would seem to be the most hopeless situations, if you can get an early intervention that is really well thought out, is strategic and has the support around it, you can get the solution and save the organisation a considerable amount of money, time and stress.”

How to introduce restorative practice in your workplace

Restorative practice within workplaces is a relatively new concept, and methods of implementation will vary from group to group.

Some basic strategies you can start with include:

  1. Identify the current culture and approaches to conflict management (how do we handle things now?)
  2. Look for real life examples of poor conflict management in the workplace (is the issue being ignored, or have attempts to resolve it gone poorly?)
  3. Create a safe space for discussion
  4. Have a skilled mediator present
  5. Create opportunities to bring teams together for more open discussion
  6. Encourage personal responsibility and creativity for positive conflict management and resolution
  7. Invest in professional learning opportunities

I offer tailored webinars on conflict management that are designed to help you address the unique challenges your teams or department may be facing. 

To chat about this and restorative practice further, please email me at kv@kimvella.com.au 

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