It is so often seen as a challenge that teams have to deal with; something negative that must be avoided at all costs. But that’s just not realistic. Conflict will happen and we should be open to it and learn from it.
As long as cooperation is the primary outcome, conflict can be used as a productive, positive energy. Unfortunately, for the large part, conflict is usually understood as a behavior that impacts negatively on staff and a department’s productivity.
The real cost of conflict in the workplace
Conflict is actually a menace that is devouring our resources and restricting business growth.
A study published by CPP Global found that employees in the US spent 2.1 hours every week dealing with conflict, equating to around $359 billion in paid hours, the time adds up to 385 million working days wasted.
What causes workplace conflict?
For business to combat this level of disruption, they need to address it head on, but to do this effectively, managers need to know the key causes.
According to the CPP report:
- Half of employees surveyed (49%) feel personality clashes and ego confrontations constitute the main cause of workplace conflict.
- Leadership, or lack of it, is also seen as a significant element in generating conflict at work.
- Three in ten employees (29%) see conflict arise from poor leadership at the top of the organization, with around a quarter (23%) saying that poor line-management is to blame.
Richard Thompson, director of research for CPP, states that similar personality traits between individuals can actually be problematic, as opposed to facilitating good relationships. Thompson’s recommendation is to strive for a personality balance in workforces. When this isn’t possible, businesses should turn to training to help managers and other employees deal with conflict successfully.
Terry Sember, author of Bad Apples: How to Manage Difficult Employees, Encourage Good Ones to Stay and Boost Productivity, looks back to the hiring process for answers. He suggests asking interviewees directly about why they left their last job, why they left the job before that, and to comment on their relationships with former colleagues.
From the CPP study, 54% of workers surveyed said that managers had to take the lead on conflict management, through knowing their team’s personalities well so that they can stay alert to potential traits that could turn into flashpoints for conflict.
2. Poor communication
Differences in communication styles, or simply a failure to communicate at all can both cause conflict. Therefore, communication should be incorporated into every element of staff training.
Try to forge an open communication culture in the workplace by encouraging employees to talk about work issues, and provide an official forum for this to take place. Berkeley recommends regular meetings as a good way to enable staff to air how they feel about certain decisions and to forward their own ideas in a way that openly garners support from colleagues.
3. Speed of conflict management
Nipping problems in the bud is crucial. Failure to deal with disputes – for whatever reason – can lead to issues escalating.
Research from CIPD finds that 16% of employees have experienced a workplace conflict that had become more intense as a result of it not being resolved quickly. However, the responsibility of conflict management lies on the shoulders of the entire organization, and not just with the line manager.
While there is no silver bullet, the same survey deemed the simple act of conversation a major factor in finding resolution, with 42% favoring one-to-one conversation. More interestingly, 39% of employees surveyed saw it as the responsibility of the manager to model best practice behavior as an example to colleagues.
"Conflict resolution conversations facilitated by a team leader will uncover problems and result in positive solutions. It is constructive to listen and acknowledge opposing ideas and points of view.” - Joan Kingsley, author of The Fear-Free Organisation
Stress is a very common source of workplace conflict. The occupational health provider, Health Assured, reports that nearly 86% of workers direct frustration and anger at co-workers regularly.
Workplace stress impacts on employee welfare and can ultimately impact the larger picture due to the clear links between stress and sickness absence. Therefore, managers need to focus on triggers and behaviors that signal an individual is likely becoming emotionally stretched. The next step is for managers to encourage staff to talk openly about stress and conflict, and the challenges and barriers that exist within teams and outside them.
The biggest problem with conflict is the perception of it
I have spent many years working with a business coach who has explained to me that it’s not conflict that is the bad thing but the emotions and behaviors that surround it; in other words, the personas that we adopt when confronted with the situation.
Let me explain. The person who started the conflict is seen as the persecutor, the person on the receiving end is perceived as the victim and there is always the third, the rescuer. This is the person who sweeps in and consoles the victim and points out the bad behavior of the persecutor. The tendency, as a manager in a conflict situation, is to be the rescuer and that, unfortunately, is exactly the wrong thing to do. It encourages disharmony and divide rather than unity.
I always try to approach conflict impartially by listening to both parties individually and non-partially. I ask both parties to look at the subject of the disagreement in the third person. To take out the “I” and “you” away from the conversation but look at the subject of the difference as “it”.
Then, as moderator, I identify what I see as the subject of the conflict and get both parties to agree.
Finally and together, we “put that subject on the table” and examine it, we listen to the other person’s point of view on that subject but outside of them personally. This often unifies both parties in solving the problem rather than pointing the finger at each other
I have used this simple tool for years and it has worked to relieve the tension and focus the team on goals and solutions. Conflict can be positive and this is the first step.
Breakdowns between individuals are part and parcel of working life. It may sound clichéd, but each conflict really is an opportunity to make vast improvements.
By and large, conflict finds its roots in poor interpersonal relationships, whether they are between peers, or management figures and staff. This in turn can often be traced back to poor leadership at the top of the organization.
From a top-down perspective, instead of delegating responsibility to departments, managers need to tighten their game, acting as role models and behaving with demonstrated integrity. Only then can the basis for a harmonious working environment be established.