Developing a conflict resilient workplace by supercharging your people with an integrated conflict management model

  • How can organisations reduce internal conflict?
  • How can conflict be managed and contained before it escalates?
  • What is a conflict resilient workplace?


In 2009, Nicole had the privilege of working with the State Services Authority in Victoria to assist the public sector to achieve best practice in workplace complaints and grievance handling. The objective was to move beyond the focus on management and resolution of internal conflict and to shift towards creating and sustaining positive work environments where there was an “interest based” focus and an emphasis on constructive communications.

Working together with over 40 public sector organisations, Nicole drafted a practical Guide for the public sector on how to reduce workplace conflict.  The Guide is equally applicable to the private sector. Since the Guide was published in 2010, Nicole has assisted many organisations from the public and the private sector to resolve internal conflict and I continue to recommend the Guide as a practical tool for the management and prevention of internal conflict.

So, what is meant by a “conflict resilient workplace” and “an integrated conflict management system” and how can an organisation benefit by embracing these concepts?

A conflict resilient workplace

A “conflict resilient workplace” is one where strong communications and relationships underpin the conflict management system. It is one that encourages strong diagnosis about the root cause of the problem and this is integrated with appropriate decision making about the best response (whether that is direct dialogue about issues, mediation,  facilitation or adjudication.)

A conflict resilient workplace does not rely solely on formal dispute processes, but instead emphasizes positive relationships and strong communication so that conflict is managed early, at the lowest possible level and with the most appropriate response.

Conflict resilient workplaces share four features

1. Promote
They are proactive in building a culture of communication

2. Prevent
They take measures to prevent things from going wrong

3. Respond
They respond quickly and appropriately when things do go wrong

4. Comply
They are compliant with applicable guidelines, rules and regulations and addressing principles of natural justice and procedural fairness

What is an integrated conflict management model?

An “integrated conflict management model” features a blend of formal and informal dispute resolution processes. An important element is the triage process that operates when issues are raised. The triage process involves asking questions about the root cause of the problem, who is involved and what needs to be done. It encourages the people directly involved in the issue to focus on their respective needs and interests and to take responsibility for managing their own problems using the right process.  There is a place for formal grievance processes, but these are generally reserved for specific disputes suited to formal complaints.

Key features of an integrated conflict management model

1. Provides early intervention through a triage or collaborative intake assessment model with multiple entry points for ease of access (in other words, parties have process options depending on the nature of the issue)

2. Identifies root causes of problems in addition to symptoms and shares this information to create change

3. Uses Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) methods (feedback, dialogue, mediation, facilitation) that preserve workplace relationships by

•    addressing the needs and interests of the people involved, not just their formal legal rights

•    encouraging self resolution (with support), rather than emphasising a formal arm’s length process

4. Incorporates preventative actions such as training and awareness raising

The role of ADR in resolving workplace conflict

Workplace conflict can arise as a result of everyday misunderstandings and a build up of frustration. Differences in style and expectations create resentment, avoidance, aggression and destructive thoughts, feelings and behaviours. The strongest negative feelings associated with interpersonal conflict are anger, fear and contempt. When experienced, these lead people to disengage, or to engage destructively. Once in a state of conflict, people identify others as the problem, they cling to their own fixed positions, they feel that they can only win if the others lose and they insist on their own subjective criteria.

People in conflict find it hard to engage constructively until the sources of the conflict have been acknowledged. ADR approaches (such as mediation) seek to illuminate new perspectives, bring about a change in thinking and behaviour and help to focus thoughts on opportunities and change.

ADR methods are based on 4 key principles:

1.    The best decision makers in a dispute are usually the people directly involved
2.    To effectively resolve a dispute, people need to hear and understand each other
3.    Disputes are best resolved on the basis of the people’s interests and needs
4.    Disputes are best resolved at the earliest possible time and at the lowest possible level

How to develop a conflict resilient workplace

Every organisation is at a different stage of maturity in its adoption of an integrated conflict management model. The review process suggested here applies irrespective of your organisations circumstances:-

1.    Get top level commitment to undertake a review of your conflict management systems. Put a business case together which addresses the current problems, the process, the resources required, the risk mitigation outcomes and cost savings that are likely.
2.    Create a cross functional team to agree on the project objectives and to conduct a review of current practices and systems. The review should assess the costs of conflict (both tangible and intangible)
3.    Identify areas for improvement. Determine how well your organisation manages conflict. This will involve both diagnostic work and discussions
4.    Develop broad options for change and present them to decision makers
5.    Develop and implement a plan for improvements
6.    Evaluate the success of interventions, including the extent of participant engagement
7.    Provide feedback to management and staff


Adoption of some or all of these practical suggestions may produce a range of outcomes for organisations including:

  • reduction of costs through earlier resolution of complaints and grievances
  • recognition that the longer a complaint is allowed to go unaddressed, the greater the potential damage to the working relationship of those involved
  • higher levels of commitment at all levels of the organisation towards conflict management and prevention
  • a clearer appreciation of the link between grievances, disputes, complaints and conflict to overall organisational ‘health’ and positive communication
  • higher levels of engagement by employees
  • clarification of the values which are important in your workplace
  • clearer appreciation of the cost of workplace conflict
  • better understanding of the areas for improvement  in relation to conflict management and prevention
  • the creation of a more positive workplace environment


Focusing on resolution of internal complaints and grievances is not enough. Organisations need to focus on prevention by encouraging a culture of constructive communication and by ensuring that systems and procedures support this culture. Empower and resource the people and the business to succeed.



[1] “Interest based” suggests a focus on the needs and interests of people in the workplace rather than a focus on their legal rights
[2] In 2010, State Services Authority (SSA) concluded a series of initiatives to assist the Victorian public sector to reduce workplace conflict and bring about positive change. Working together with a network of over 100 people across some 40 Victorian public sector organisations, the SSA published “Developing Conflict Resilient Workplaces – An Implementation Guide for Public Sector Managers and Teams” together with a companion document “Conflict Resilient Workplaces – a Report for Victorian Public Sector Leaders.”
The Report provides the business case for changing the way that conflict is managed in the workplace. It also challenges Victorian public sector leaders to help build workplace relations through communication. The principles in the Guide and the Report are equally applicable to the private sector and to workplace environments other than the public sector.