Conflict at work is a regular feature of organisational life. Conflict in itself need not be bad or destructive. A mark of a healthy team or organisation is its ability to handle and resolve conflict. Just as in any relationship, how the individuals interact will make their interactions more or less ‘robust’. A healthy working relationship is robust enough to manage the inevitable disagreements that arise without them spiralling into conflict, and should conflict erupt it can handle this productively too.
Managing conflict and disputes
Though conflict is an unavoidable part of our lives, none of us really likes it, many people are afraid of it, and some will tell you they avoid getting into conflict wherever possible. This is odd, given that we all manage conflict pretty well to some degree. In fact, most people overlook that in order to live and work in groups, managing and resolving conflicts is part of what it means to be human.
We are a social species and so one of our most basic social skills is to be able to spot and smooth over the disagreements that threaten our social safety and harmony.
We tend not to notice this though. More often we notice and focus on the few interactions we have that go wrong. On a typical day most people will have many points of social contact, discussions and interactions with others that run smoothly. Because there is no obvious conflict we often don’t remember them, and only rarely do we realise that many of them could have caused conflict but didn’t, because of the way we handled them.
It is only when things go wrong that we remember them. Incidents such as:
- Difficult behaviour
Many incidents, often seemingly unimportant ones, can spiral into conflict. Sometimes this is open and visible, but it can also be unexpressed, often simmering for long periods and sometimes never resolved. explains how we can use our social skills creatively to work round potential disagreement and increase our sense of wellbeing at work. You can also download the free guide Difficult People – Key Ideas.
It is hard to say which of these two types of conflict is more damaging. Many conflict resolution professionals believe that conflict has to erupt – that emotion has to be expressed – before it can be resolved. By extension, some would say that openly expressed conflict is healthy conflict; so unexpressed conflict must be harmful.
Though unexpressed conflict may not erupt, it is still visible and costly to organisations. Some of the behaviours associated with unexpressed conflict are:
- Poor motivation
Corresponding emotional responses in those in conflict include:
- Low morale
- Poor concentration
- Short temper
It is easy to see how unexpressed conflict at work can lead to a range of unproductive behaviours. Furthermore, it can ripple out and affect other parts of the team. So conflict is not only damaging to those people directly involved, and the full costs are hard to measure.
Common causes of workplace conflict
Key factors that increase the likelihood of conflict in an organisation are:
- Inadequate communication
- Low morale
- Poor management practice
- Poorly managed change
- Unfair treatment
In short anything that raises levels of uncertainty, anxiety or unhappiness in a work group or organisation will produce conflict more often. An example of this is where a team is ineffectively managed (through frequent changes in management for example). This produces uncertainty, poor leadership and a general lack of support. It takes a particularly healthy and robust team to weather such difficulties and avoid the breakdowns that lead to conflict.
Handling workplace conflict
There are two ways of approaching conflict in the workplace, reducing it and resolving it.
Reducing conflict involves preventative measure and cultural change in the organisation. Change intended to make organisations better able to handle conflict tends to be ‘top down’. It should encourage:
- ‘Emotionally Intelligent’ staff
- An ‘open’ culture of discussion and exchange
- An informal dispute resolution process (e.g. mediation).
- Clear communications
- Clear grievance policies and procedures
- Early support and guidance for individuals in conflict
- Visible and accessible management
When an organisation wants to take positive steps in this direction much can be done internally, and this should be supported by a training programme to support managers and inform staff.
In general, the more healthy and open the group, the better it will be at handling conflict. Even in healthy and robust organisations, though, conflict will still occur. When this happens, early intervention is best, before the conflict enflames tempers and people become entrenched. At this extreme end of the spectrum, using mediation provided by an external consultant has a high success rate in helping people re-establish a viable working relationship.
Earlier on in the cycle of conflict, empathetic approach by a manager or HR manager can help. The proviso here is the individual has been properly trained to do this, and many feel that they have not. If a relevantly skilled manager is not available, then find someone else who can help (a mediator or counsellor for example).
In disputes between staff or a manager and an employee, people should be encouraged to find their own way through their difficulty. This enables them to improve their relationship as well as resolving the dispute.
Larger organisations in the UK have recently started setting up their own internal dispute resolution services, and these can be a useful resource in helping to keep the disruptive effects of conflict to a minimum. It is also a good way of demonstrating support for staff.
Please contact me for advice on any aspect of workplace conflict.