Change How You View Conflict with Alternative Dispute Resolution
When business owners envisage their ideal workforce, they usually imagine a crew of employees striving towards shared goals, united in their effort to achieve the company mission without disagreements. Yet where there are humans, there is conflict, no matter how affable our coworkers or positive our work environment. Employees come from differing backgrounds and beliefs that dictate how they handle disputes on a personal and professional level, and since we spend a great deal of our lives at work, conflict is inevitable.
This isn’t bad news. Since conflict is a natural product of humanity, the presence of disagreements doesn’t necessarily signify a toxic workplace or suggest that employees aren’t getting along.
“Of course, you’re going to have conflict. It’s normal,” says Joie Quarton, a conflict management practitioner with the Yukon Government and a 2017 Imagine Your Workplace Conference speaker. Going against the grain of the popular mindset, she would like to see employers embrace the reality that disputes are normal.
Yet, ask any manager or employer and they will likely decree that disputes cost them time and money and reflect poorly on employee happiness. Workplace conflict tends to make us uncomfortable, and so we don’t deal with it until an issue arises. We treat it like an illness, and conflict resolution like a remedy instead of a preventative measure. Traditionally, when there is a conflict, someone lodges an official complaint. From there, the process can turn into an investigation, litigation or worse, and staff are often demoralized by the experience.
So, is there a better way to handle conflict? Some organizations are taking note of the negative impact traditional dispute resolution has on culture, effectiveness and happiness in the workplace and are looking for different solutions. One such solution is Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).
While not new on the human resources scene, the practice is growing in popularity.
“ADR is an umbrella term that includes any way of resolving a dispute other than going to court,” says Elinor Whitmore, Vice President of the Toronto-based ADR provider, the Stitt Felt Handy Group (SFHG).
ADR is an effective method for addressing conflict, not only after it happens but preventatively, through specialized training tailored to address specific situations — because there is no one-size-fits-all conflict resolution; each disagreement is as unique as the people involved in it.
An excellent example of the positive impact ADR can have in the workplace can be found in the North, where both the Nunavut and Yukon governments have adopted ADR programs in favour of traditional conflict resolution.
ADR IN THE YUKON
Prior to 2013, workplace costs were piling up in Yukon Territory. Staff were stressed, and the territory’s complaint and grievance system was overtaxed. A new Public Service Commissioner came on board and recognized that the “investigation process was doing more harm than good,” says Quarton, with many staff taking disability leave and benefits to cope with the stress.
Traditional investigations were costly, took time away from routine work duties and were difficult to manage when it was inevitable that one side of the argument would end up the “loser.” Something had to give; and it did.
In 2013, the entire Respectful Workplace Office department shut down to overhaul the way they managed complaints. Recognizing the stress on staff, the cost to the government for investigations, mounting disability benefit fees and the win-lose nature of the previous system, the Yukon government created an ADR method aimed at mitigating conflict before it happened and coping with it after it did.
It was around this time that Quarton was hired. With a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution and her previous experience as a lawyer, she was already well-versed in the area and, having become interested in ADR, jumped at the chance to work with the Yukon government. In consultation with a variety of stakeholders, including First Nations communities, employees, the Deputy Minister, unions, human resources, and the Aboriginal Employee Forum, she helped implement an ADR strategy in which the Respectful Workplace Office would offer coaching, training and facilitated conversation.
The Yukon has an incredibly diverse workforce, with a large representation of Indigenous staff, making it important that representatives from those communities be included in the process. “There’s huge value in being tuned into First Nations ways of doing things,” says Quarton. “We want First Nations [people] to feel comfortable accessing our processes.”
It was also critical that the unions involved were on board because all parties gave up their right to grieve issues and instead were bound by the new conflict resolution process, with participation declared mandatory. This gesture was indicative of the faith the unions had in the new ADR practices, which boosted employee buy-in into the process.
Now, with the new dispute resolution system, training is provided on a wide range of ADR practices. When disagreements arise, facilitated conversations are held between the parties involved, a process which Quarton believes is vital to the disputants understanding the facts through the preconceived perceptions they might hold.
“We have the ability to talk through things when we have the proper supports,” Quarton says of the meetings she holds with all parties in a conflict.
After a few coaching sessions designed to help both sides become cognizant of their role in the conflict, she facilitates conversation to reach a solution. It isn’t always easy; sometimes it’s necessary to create a procedural trust agreement, where the disputants agree on a structure or procedure to enable them to work together while engaged in the ADR process, until they can reach a resolution.
Although the Respectful Workplace Office still has the ability to complete investigations, since the new ADR policies came into place four years ago they have not needed to complete a single investigation.
ADR IN NUNAVUT
Sometimes there is no particular event that sparks a change in conflict resolution methods. For the Nunavut government, there was just a recognition that with a diverse workforce comes diverse needs and ways of approaching conflict. This led the government to send many of their employees for specialized training with the Toronto-based ADR company Stitt Felt Handy Group (SFHG).
“As a result of attending the public workshops, several participants developed an interest in having us provide customized training for the Government of Nunavut,” says Elinor Whitmore, Vice President of SFHG.
Workshops were offered in the major regional seats of Nunavut, including Cambridge Bay for the Kitikmeot region, Rankin Inlet for the Kivalliq area, and Iqaluit for the Qikiqtaaluk region, covering a broad landscape geographically and culturally. Simultaneously, Inuit Societal Values offered sessions in the Aajiiqatigiinniq process — the traditional method of decision-making through discussion and consensus — and an Inuit elder led talks on traditional dispute resolution and how it applied to Nunavut’s workforce.
Participants who completed the entire program received the Executive Certificate in Conflict Management from the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Law, giving them transferable skills applicable to any workplace. The training empowered staff to handle conflict while giving them the feeling that their background, communication style and value at work was appreciated.
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM THE NORTH
Though the Yukon and Nunavut governments each took a unique approach to ADR, one constant that they share is the concept that everyone has to buy into the process. This buy-in can only be achieved through connecting and consulting with the wide range of stakeholders, including employees, managers, unions, and First Nations and Inuit elders. Without the respect of diverse cultural backgrounds, participation of everyone involved and appreciation for differing conflict styles, the process would have fallen apart.
Tailoring programs to suit the needs of the community was also key to the successful implementation of ADR in both cases. For example, the SFHG training sessions included online options to accommodate remote areas that could not access in-class workshops.
Also notable was a surety that First Nations and Inuit representatives be consulted throughout the process. The 2015 final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission contains 94 “calls to action” to address Canada’s appalling legacy of mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. The report highlights the need to consult Indigenous communities and recognize their own methods of handling conflict. According to Whitmore, this means including elders in the process as they hold great importance and respect in Indigenous communities. “It is … best to have someone who knows all of the people and their ancestors,” she says, “and who is very familiar with the culture of the community.”
David Noganosh, CEO of Red Wolf Mediation and ADR Services, Ontario’s only First Nations-owned and-operated mediation firm, agrees. Noganosh has a long history of helping differing groups cross cultural barriers, evidenced in his work with Indigenous communities around the world, teaching violence prevention, conflict resolution and anger management. Having grown up “in conflict,” as he puts it, he reconnected with his First Nations culture in his twenties and, after training with SFHG, saw the potential to apply Indigenous ways to the ADR practice.
“I thought I would incorporate traditional teachings of learning and spirituality into dispute resolution,” he says. “We’ve always had traditional ways of resolving conflict in our communities. We would have council fires and circle processes, and we would smoke a pipe and pass the pipe around and ask for guidance from the spirit world.”
Today, Noganosh uses tools like talking sticks, eagle feathers and tobacco as part of his healing and mediation processes with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups.
He wants elders to be brought into decision-making in general. “We’re trying to help the non-Indigenous recognize the value of Indigenous conflict resolution and raise awareness about Truth and Reconciliation,” he says.
THE BENEFITS OF ADR
On top of transcending cultural barriers and uniting workplaces, ADR can also have a transformational effect on individuals. “Sarah,” a director who wishes to remain anonymous, engaged ADR services after a conflict she was having in the workplace. When a supervisor mentioned that coaching and mediation was provided by the company, she started one-on-one coaching. Calling the process “lifechanging,” she claims it made her a better person all around and enabled her to better understand her own role in her workplace conflict. “It’s like being blind and then you can see,” she says.
After her positive experience, Sarah incorporated the training she received into her daily work. She now recognizes how her own behaviour contributes to conflict. “I’m able to better understand someone who is not like me,” she says. She hopes to see her company’s ADR services better advertised, so that all departments can take advantage of the training. In the meantime, she is able to recognize potential conflicts on her team and send them to training to help them work through their own path of self-reflection
When it comes to workplace conflict, investigation isn’t just financially costly; it also impacts the health and overall happiness of employees. “It’s cheaper in the long run,” says Quarton of ADR. “Old approaches aren’t effective these days,” she says, with one side of a conflict always left feeling as though they’ve lost.
ADR training also provides staff with tangible skills that they can apply not only to inter-office communication but externally too, with clients and customers and in their personal lives and future careers. “It grows your emotional intelligence, which is really important,” says Sarah.
Conflict isn’t a scary word anymore, certainly not within ADR circles. “It’s about giving people a lens to look at conflict, so that they start to understand it better and not be so afraid of it,” says Quarton. Countless examples of the successful implementation of ADR practices, including those in Yukon and Nunavut, proves that conflict can be normalized and turned into something positive and life-changing.