Compromise is key to solving work conflicts

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 July, 2005, 12:00am

The cause of dispute must be addressed before it can be resolved, but many firms are too quick to placate

DEALING EFFECTIVELY WITH conflict is similar to treating an illness. You must look beyond the symptoms and find the underlying cause, according to a leading expert in the field of mediation.

'Conflict is a symptom only, and in the workplace it is a clear indication that there is something wrong with the system,' said Norris Yang, a partner in law firm Boughton Peterson Yang Anderson, and chairman of the Hong Kong Mediation Council.

He believes that in many work environments people are often too quick to placate colleagues when a dispute occurs. This is done in an attempt to resolve the issue as soon as possible, but such an approach usually fails to tackle the source of the problem.

'It is much like taking an aspirin for a headache without looking at what caused the headache in the first place. It is important to look at why the conflict came about. Some people like to complain for no good reason, just as others like to see a doctor when nothing is really wrong. So you have to identify the cause,' said Mr Yang.

Once the reason for the conflict or dispute is known, a mutually agreed upon resolution is possible.

In Hong Kong, three approaches to resolve conflicts are used with varying levels of success.

The first is the 'power' approach. This is where one person asserts who is the boss, lays down a policy and declares that it is not open for discussion. In such cases, an employee has little chance of resolution. Mr Yang said this approach solved nothing and left the employee feeling defeated, and perhaps affected overall morale.

He said it was crucial to listen to employees at all times, including when there were disputes, because an employee might have a valid point that should not be dismissed simply because it did not match policy.

'Unfortunately, listening gets forgotten during disputes, but employees should be encouraged to voice their thoughts,' said Mr Yang.

The second method is based on the concept of rights, often relying on the terms set down in a contract. This approach is quite common, but the nature of contracts can still cause problems.

'In over 25 years of practising law I have not seen a contract without a flaw. Therefore, trying to solve a dispute based on a contract and assumed rights is a flawed approach,' said Mr Yang.

This method may also require an HR manager or a third party to act as an ultimate decision-maker. This is not easy and, more often than not, one party is left feeling dissatisfied with the outcome, thus increasing chances of the dispute escalating.

Mr Yang said the least used but most effective means of resolution was the third one: this involved looking at the interests of all parties concerned, including the company's, and trying to find a solution that takes each into account.

An employee may not want to work on Saturdays. Using the power approach, the manager would insist, saying it was policy and refuse to listen.

The rights scenario might involve the employee organising a signature campaign to show that most employees did not want to work on Saturdays, but this approach would probably ignore obligations to the company. This would likely end in frustration and a more difficult working environment all round.

In the case of interests, however, the manager looks at why the employee does not want to work on Saturdays. The reasons are fully considered, with the input of all relevant parties, before a solution is suggested.

This could be in the form of a pay cut in return for having Saturdays off, more hours worked during the week, or alternate Saturdays off for the same salary.

'It is vital to involve the people with the dispute in the decision-making process and to work together to find a solution that is acceptable to all parties,' Mr Yang said.

Neither side will be 100 per cent happy but both would gain some satisfaction, which is a more appropriate form of compromise, he said.

'Experience has shown us that this is the best way,' he said.


Always look for the root cause of a dispute. Identify the symptoms and what lies behind them before deciding on the methods of dealing with them.

Ask both parties to explain their positions and get them involved in the process of finding a solution.

When considering the interests of the various parties involved in a dispute, an HR manager should employ the same skills used by a professional mediator.

If the dispute is a major issue, break it down into smaller parts and find solutions for these. Often dealing with the more manageable issues will lead to the bigger issues being resolved far more easily.

Encourage employees to make suggestions for improvements. This involvement leads to greater job satisfaction and increased harmony in the workplace.

Remember that no person is absolutely right in any argument and an interest-based approach allows for differences.

Management support for an interest-based methodology is important.