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Conflict causes widespread damage; it’s not a private matter and it isn’t only the two adversaries who suffer. Most organisations provide help in dealing with conflict at work, but at only works if you are willing to make use of what’s offered.

A conflict at work story

The CEO of a medium sized organisation, told me about her attitude to conflict in the workplace. She said “It is totally unacceptable for employees to work and allow their performance to be compromised because of relationship difficulties, and anyone who is in a dispute should be taking steps, with the support of their employer, to resolve the matter so that they can do the job they are paid to do to the best of their abilities. It is doubly offensive when one or more of the disputants is a manager.”

A bit hard-line perhaps? After all, we all get into conflict with  from time to time, and since we don’t choose our colleagues we can come up against some pretty disagreeable behaviour at work. But she was adamant. “We train our managers in supporting staff, we provide good support and advice to our people through out employee assistance programme, we provide guidance on how to resolve disputes and we tell them that mediation is available if all else fails.”

This came to mind recently when I witnessed a longstanding workplace dispute in a public sector organisation where each of the two protagonists seemed intent only on destroying the professional integrity of the other.

These were two very senior section heads whose dispute was common knowledge throughout the organisation. So virulent was this débacle that it had completely divided a large number of staff in the section, creating two factions who were emulating the tantrums of their bosses. I was told that about 100 staff were directly affected, morale was low, infighting was rife and people felt powerless to do anything about it.

Public and shameful

Shocking though it is, public spats, as we know, are pretty common. This is an extreme case because of seniority of the disputants, the damage it was causing, and the resulting financial costs and the effects on morale and performance across the organisation (incidentally, this was OUR cost because the people in this organisation public sector employees).

But it demonstrates just how organisations get it wrong by turning a blind eye to disputes. When handled badly or ignored by the employer, a disagreement will continue to rumble on and cause damage,not just to the dispitants’ relationship, but also to the wider group. Conflict can quickly spiral out of control to a point where it dominates the scene and affects far more than the two people who are at loggerheads.

In this case the two people at the centre of the row had, more than once, almost reached agreement in talks brokered by the HR department. These had broken down each time because, as it was explained to me “Both of them  wanted not only to win, but each also wanted to punish the other in some way.” The need for retribution drives people to extremes, especially when the dispute has become public knowledge. It’s harder to back down when there is an audience.

See also Workplace Mediation and How judgements stop thought.

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