Conflict at work, effects of conflict

Conflict at work is frequently ignored and often dealt with too late. This is hardly surprising as few of us are trained in dealing constructively with people-related problems,and so managers can be at a loss on how to deal with difficulties between staff members and colleagues. A common strategy seems to be to ignore the trouble and hope it will goes away. Fingers crossed!

But just because a conflict is simmering instead of exploding doesn’t mean that is isn’t causing trouble, and workplace strife affects more than those directly in dispute; it ripples out to impact on colleagues, affecting morale and causing disruption, absenteeism, stress and lost productivity.
If you doubt the damage that conflict can do in an organisation, consider this:
“The CIPD found that the average annual costs to employers of dealing with Tribunal claims £20,000. Management time is also lost with almost 10 days on average dealing with an individual case. The Gibbons review quotes data suggesting that the average cost of defending a claim in 2005 was around £9000.”*

Conflict at work causes personal pain

Conflict at work is obviously costly in financial terms, but more important is the cost to morale, working relationships and personal well-being. Conflict causes misery and burns up energy that would otherwise used productively for work. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Informal approaches to managing conflict are cost-effective and can usually help people find a solution without the cost or damage to relationships that occur when things are left too late. On top of that, colleagues who have patched up a damaged relationship – with or without the help of a mediator – often find that the relationship is more supportive and this helps improve their morale and motivation. Most people don’t want to be in conflict (despite what we tend to think when we are locked into a dispute), but nobody really wants to take the first step.

Some managers are adept at helping others resolve their conflicts, and these days employers are increasingly trying to train them in mediation skills. But people in dispute don’t have to wait for a manager to sort things out for them, they can also do something for themselves and improve the quality of their lives. In fact, because conflict at work does so much harm to our motivation, self-esteem and enjoyment of life we have every interest in taking control and doing something about it for ourselves.

What’s more, most of us don’t feel safe discussing conflict at work with another person. It can be daunting. So where can we start? Here is my much simplified plan:

Creating possibilities

Start by preparing yourself by helping your thinking to change from blame and recrimination to curiosity about how things might be netter. Bill O’Hanlon, from the Solution Focused field, calls this ‘creating possibilities’.

  • Do this by starting to imagine how things might be if you could wave a magic wand and create the kind of relationship with the other person that you’d really like. To start with you’ll probably get some images of the nasty things you like to do to them, but move past this. Focus on the future and on how it’ll be when things have changed for the better. The at this stage here is not to worry about how it’ll happen, just think about how it will be between you when things are working better. This is about what a magic wand could make possible.
  • Ask yourself about times when the problem between you has been less noticeable, less intense or less of upsetting. There will have been moments, even brief ones, when the relationship functioned a little better despite the underlying tension. If you think about it carefully and honestly (that’s the hardest part), you should be able find the ‘exceptions to the problem’. Nothing is constant so change is happening all the time. Training the mind to look for exceptions also starts to prepare our thinking for change. This needs to happen is we are going to spot opportunities for positive change and be willing to use them.
  • People in conflict usually miss small, positive changes and exceptions that inevitably occur in any relationship, even a troubled one. These are the seeds of positive change. It is useful to start noticing them so we can nurture them. When you have found some exceptions as above, ask yourself “How did I make that happen?” You may be tempted to disregard your part in exceptions and little opportunities by writing them off as chance. It is more useful to accept that you must have had some part in it, just as you did in the conflict (even if you didn’t actually cause it you have helped sustain in). When you know what made it possible for exceptions to occur (what was the context?; who said what to whom?; was there less pressure?; was someone else present?), you can help them happen more often.
  • Distinguish between cause and effect. Whatever the ’cause’ of the dispute (a misunderstanding, a cross word, perceived lack of respect etc), it is the ongoing effects that are causing the problem (mistrust, isolation, inability to work together, tension etc). To restore a working relationship

Note that this process requires us to move away from the natural thinking styles of conflict – blame, accusation and defensiveness – to modes of thought that are less divisive and more conducive to empathy and understanding. This takes willingness, commitment and belief that things can be better. Some people find this difficult because the naturally occurring need to blame persuades us that there can be no resolution without punishment.

This powerful idea is the reason that many conflicts never get resolved.This is why the first steps in this approach require us to work on ourselves. Recognising and changing our thinking style is an important first step in making ourselves ready for change and open to more productive relations with the other person. If there is a real problem that needs discussing.

Are you caught in a conflict at work?

Contact me and we’ll set up a (free) discussion. I can help.

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.