Need for Greater Conflict Competence

A lack of conflict competence and a culture of conflict avoidance is costing the Irish economy. Civil service human resources officers in Ireland are avoiding conflict as they “do not like tackling underperformance” and fear a “backlash from unions”. This avoidance of conflict is contributing to the poor implementation of the Performance Management and Development System. The Secretary General at the Department of Justice, Sean Aylward, describes an “almost congenital disinclination to confront our colleagues with the truth about their performance”.

This highlights low levels of conflict competence existing in the Irish civil service and a culture of conflict avoidance that is undoubtedly costing the country in terms of poor performance and lower productivity. It is also creating a working environment that is stressful for workers and is not good for their sense of self worth.

The ability to have constructive conflict and to hold people accountable for their commitments in the workplace should be a core competence for people in supervisory and management positions. However, this is only part of the solution. There needs to be an integrated conflict management system that fosters conflict competence and the ability to resolve conflict constructively. It cannot be left up to individuals and needs to be lead from the top.

Integrated conflict management systems have been introduced in some public services in Australia, Canada and the USA with impressive results. Resort to dispute mechanisms has reduced with an increased use of conflict coaching and mediation. This has reduced costs overall and increased productivity. Conflict coaching is now provided in the US Department of Homeland Security,  Australian Defence Department, Victoria Police,  Canadian Transport Securities Authority, Department of Environment Climate Change and Water, NSW and the Victorian Electoral Commission.

Introducing an integrated conflict management system requires vision and leadership. It requires an analysis of the current system and culture of conflict so that appropriate systems changes and training can be implemented to promote a culture of healthy conflict with greater productivity and team spirit.

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