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Soft Skills and Conflict in the Workplace

In the workplace it is often the collective “we” — we as people, we as humans, we as employees — that represent the most challenging and precarious aspect of work.

Conflict in the workplace comes in all shapes and sizes whether it be between employer and employee, two employees, groups of employees, or with external stakeholders. All of these have the potential to negatively impact on businesses if they are not addressed and dealt with.

If conflict is left unaddressed, factions can form, productivity drops, absenteeism occurs, people leave and the general workplace culture can suffer. Employees can raise personal grievances and claims that the employer is not providing a healthy and safe workplace. 

Managers are often the first line of defence for the employer and the employee. They will notice or hear about the conflict, usually before anyone else, and have the chance to address the problems before they escalate. Once aware there is a problem, there is only one thing worse than doing nothing – doing things wrong.

For employees to be able to thrive and management to effectively mitigate any issues arising in the workplace, soft skills are essential.


What are soft skills?

Soft skills are personal attributes that enable one to interact effectively with people. They support situational awareness. Examples of soft skills are:

  • interpersonal skills
  • empathy
  • communication
  • situational and emotional abilities
  • problem-solving
  • negotiation
  • decision making

Managers need to have the skills to not only pick up on signs of conflict, but also mitigate it or prevent it from becoming detrimental.


Why are these important?

We see many personal grievances and claims where the ERA and Court have determined that the employer is unsuccessful in defending the claim because of the actions of the manager at the outset have disadvantaged an employee or they undertook a process that was procedurally flawed. It is safe to assume that determinations and mistakes such as these usually happen because the managers lack the necessary soft skills.

Soft skills are critical when dealing with people in stressful or difficult situations and mitigating conflicts. Having empathy and high emotional intelligence can enable people to defuse challenging situations and assist with building and supporting relationships within the workplace (both your own and others) and relating to others.

One of our mediators, Lynn Booker, has observed many times over the years, the benefits of managers having the opportunity to develop their soft skills in managing conflict.

Lynn mused that often employers expect their managers and team leaders to manage a team and this often focuses on output, whether it be a product or a service. The employer sometime forgets that its employees are their greatest asset and as such, need to be supported and valued to ensure they are motivated to do their best for the employer. This support and motivation can be achieved through applying soft skills.


Tips for managers

Managers do not have to be employment lawyers or conflict resolution experts, but they should be familiar with what they should do and should not do. A few tips when dealing with workplace issues:

  1. When conflict or issues come to your attention, the first step is speaking to the parties individually to understand what has happened. If you are not sure about this process [e.g. offering the person to have a support person, being clear about the reason for the meeting etc.] seek advice, as these kinds of meetings where you are asking questions and gathering information may form part of a formal process.
  2. Managers should remember that when they have these conversations, they are, for all intents and purposes, the employer. You must act in good faith and cannot ambush someone asking questions.
  3. Before any meeting, be clear about why you want to talk to the person. E.g. I heard you were unhappy about XYZ, do you want to talk about it?
  4. When you do meet, ask open ended questions. E.g. Can you help me to understand a bit more about this? Can you tell me what happened then? 
  5. At the end of the meeting, ask questions like “how do you see this being resolved?” “what can we do to sort this out?”  
  6. At no stage in these preliminary meetings is the manager forming a view. It is about saying – I want to know what’s going on and explore how we can sort it out.

If matters are addressed at the earliest stage, parties have the best chance of resolution. When managers do not address conflict or “take sides” or “jump to conclusions” this often prevents real resolution and also develops a workplace culture where conflict is not addressed in a good faith process. If managers offer their view, it also has a risk of the perception that the employer has predetermined the outcome of what occurred.

In the reverse, if managers do address conflict and are trained and confident to have difficult conversations, this builds confidence within the workforce that conflict will be addressed and not left to escalate.


To summarise

Four key points for managers to remember are:

  • Always act in good faith and be transparent in your dealings with employees
  • If you are not sure about process, speak to someone who can guide you
  • When meeting with employees remember you are not talking – you are listening and asking open ended questions to find out what occurred. Make no assumptions, no judgement, do not take sides.
  • Find out from the person you are interviewing what will resolve the matter for them.


Having good people skills means employees will be more likely to relate to you, leading to stronger relationships being created and trust being enhanced in the workplace. It will be effective long-term to invest in developing these skills in your employees.

If you or your employees need conflict coaching or assistance running difficult processes, get in touch with one of our associates today.


By Kayla Neems & Lynn Booker 


This article, and any information contained on our website is necessarily brief and general in nature, and should not be substituted for professional advice. You should always seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters addressed.

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