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Regardless of the industry, conflict in the workplace is relatively common. One survey by CIPD and YouGov in 2020 reported that a third of employees had experienced some form of conflict in the workplace within the previous twelve months. Conflict is a normal and natural occurrence, which can play a critical role in shaping the development of your team. Ultimately, it is how conflict is managed that indicates whether it is likely to be a long-term issue or not; with unresolved conflict that has been left to fester potentially having a number of negative effects on the entire company.
It is estimated that managers spend around 25% of their time resolving conflict in the workplace, which is a fairly significant amount when you consider the day-to-day tasks already required of leadership. Workplace conflict is costing UK employers a staggering £28.5 billion, according to a recent Acas report.
Other findings include:
- An estimated 485,500 employees resign each year as a result of conflict.
- There are an estimated 374,760 formal grievances each year – costing an average of £951 each in management time.
- Approximately 1.7 million formal disciplinary cases are held each year – at an estimated cost of £1,141 each.
As a result, those at the top have a responsibility for understanding why conflict occurs and the most effective ways of addressing it to ensure a positive organisational culture that fosters growth and development. This article will provide an extensive guide to dealing with conflict in the workplace, with tips and tricks for managing it. It will define conflict, highlight its advantages and disadvantages, and summarise current thinking regarding how to ensure that conflict is appropriately and effectively resolved.
What does conflict mean?
The Oxford dictionary defines conflict as being ‘a situation in which people, groups or countries are involved in a serious disagreement or argument’ or one on which there are ‘opposing ideas, opinions, feelings or wishes’. It is not something that happens to a person, but instead, it is a result of two people, teams or groups possessing conflicting priorities or ideas.
The lack of a clear definition regarding what conflict is means that we often perceive it to be something that we need to avoid. However, conflict, in itself, is not necessarily a negative thing. Differences in opinion, passionate discussions and sometimes even heated debates can promote action and be the change that a company needs to thrive. On the other hand, a failure to address conflict in the workplace can result in high staff turnover, high rates of absenteeism and increased employee stress and anxiety.
Can conflict be beneficial?
Conflict frequently occurs in mixed-motive relationships and it is often a result of incompatibility, including differing ideas, beliefs, goals, values or work styles. As a result, we often assume that conflict is negative and should be avoided at all costs but, actually, it can have many benefits when it is appropriately managed.
Such benefits may include:
- New perspectives
- Positive change
- Enables improved communicative skills
- Improved relationships
- Improved problem-solving skills
- Boosts productivity.
What are the causes of conflict in the workplace?
As previously mentioned, conflict is a natural occurrence and there are a variety of reasons why conflict may exist in the workplace, such as:
- Avoiding Conflict – It may seem peculiar that this could be one of the key causes of conflict existing in the workplace, but avoidance undoubtedly deserves its place at the top of the list. A failure to communicate issues and deal with conflict as it occurs can result in more significant issues later on.
- Interdependency – In the workplace, people are often reliant on each other to move a project forward. This knock-on effect may also result in a failure to meet expectations, and can easily cause issues amongst different staff members or teams.
- Differing Priorities – A high-pressure environment and increased workload can affect people’s moods and differing priorities could potentially result in conflict amongst staff. For example, an accountant may prioritise the bottom line, whereas a creative team may prioritise the output and quality of their work. Whilst this is expected to some extent, and having an appropriate budget could alleviate issues in this scenario, varied priorities can still be a key source of conflict.
- Personality Clashes – As humans, we are all ultimately individuals and we may respond to challenging situations in different ways. This means that the mix of personalities that is often apparent in the work environment can result in clashes. It is noted that although we do not have to be friends with our colleagues, we must work together and a sense of professionalism is essential. However, due to its individualised nature, personality-based conflict can be more difficult to resolve than work-related issues.
- Lack of Leadership – A lack of leadership in the workplace is a common cause of conflict, with a failure to implement an appropriate structure resulting in confusion amongst the team. Moreover, differences in leadership styles across the management team can also cause conflict. This is particularly apparent when employees may need to work with different managers throughout the day, especially if these have varied approaches to management or different expectations.
- Competitive Atmosphere – While some industries may foster a competitive atmosphere, this is not necessarily conducive to a positive work environment. Pitting employees against each other may result in underlying tensions, especially if it is perceived that there is an element of favouritism within the organisation.
What are the signs of conflict in the workplace?
It is important for employees to feel that they can report any potential conflict to the management team to allow for constructive discussion and to ensure that it is resolved right away. However, this is not always the case, with some people feeling that reporting conflict is likely to elevate the situation rather than alleviate it. As a result, management should keep their eyes open for signs of potential conflict. These may include:
- High emotions
- Poor productivity
- Poor customer relations
- Cliques being formed.
What are the symptoms of conflict in the workplace?
There are many symptoms associated with unresolved conflict, with some examples being:
- High Staff Turnover – If a person is unhappy at work due to unresolved conflict, they may consider resigning from their post. This can have a significant impact on staff morale, as well as the company itself. For example, it is estimated that each employee who leaves can cost the company as much as £30,000 in output, training, advertising and interviewing for the position to be refilled.
- Reduced Productivity – Conflicting with another member of the team is likely to be a distraction, with the focus being pulled from work onto the issue. Furthermore, conflict does not only impact the people involved, but it can also spill out to the rest of the team, and could impact the company’s productivity overall.
- Mental Health Issues – Although some people are able to face conflict head-on, others may find it difficult, which could also result in increased anxiety. Furthermore, conflict can cause stress, which can result in job dissatisfaction or burnout, and unresolved work issues are associated with hopelessness, lack of motivation and depression.
- Absenteeism – A high rate of staff absenteeism is both a sign and a symptom of conflict in the workplace. If people do not enjoy being at work, then they are significantly more likely to call in sick or be on leave long term.
- Lack of Motivation – Staff who are currently experiencing conflict may be less motivated, which is also correlated with reduced productivity. This may mean that fewer people are committed to completing a project or individuals may be less motivated to engage in teamwork.
- Loss of Custom – If the conflict between staff is affecting your company’s output, this may result in increased customer complaints or even a loss of custom.
What is conflict management?
Conflict management refers to the process of dealing with confrontations that may occur in the workplace. This means that the negative effects of conflict need to be addressed, with a focus being placed on its positive aspects. There are various techniques which can be employed to ensure that conflict does not deteriorate further, with these being either preventative measures or conflict resolution as it occurs.
How can conflict be prevented?
As with most things, prevention is better than cure and these are the measures that can be put into place to prevent unhealthy conflict from occurring in the first place. It is acknowledged that such measures may seem costly and time-dependent. However, in the long run, they can ensure a positive work environment and be significantly advantageous.
- Teambuilding – The idea that familiarity breeds contempt is outdated, and we are now aware of the importance of maintaining positive relationships based on mutual trust, understanding and collaboration. Teambuilding exercises can help to foster this and effective and regular sessions can help to maintain employee relations.
- Training – Ensuring that staff are equipped with the necessary skills to deal with conflict may mean that they do not require management or HR to be involved on every occasion. Training should include the development of both hard and soft skills, including active listening, communicative skills and more.
- Delegation – Delegating tasks properly can also help to reduce potential conflict in the workplace. This means that each person is given their fair share of the work and equal access to appropriate resources required to complete the task. To ensure effective delegation, it is also important for staff to have a clear job role and that they are fully aware of their responsibility.
- Leadership – There is a distinct difference between a leader and a manager, and companies have a responsibility to ensure that an appropriate structure is in place. Training and development can play an effective role in ensuring that there is communication and trust amongst employees. However, this is not solely applicable to the team; the leader will also require suitable training with regard to conflict resolution to ensure that they can manage issues effectively.
Conflict resolution and mediation
- Understanding the Cause – It is imperative that you try to understand the root cause of the issue before you attempt resolution. Remember, there are three sides to every story – person A’s side, person B’s side and somewhere in the middle is the truth. This is not to imply that either side is lying, but that their perspectives of the situation are likely to differ.
- WIIFM – Understanding the factors that have caused the conflict may also involve an analysis of each person’s What’s In It For Me (WIIFM) position. This is an empathetic approach that recognises each person as possessing unique motivations, as well as encouraging cooperation and collaboration.
- Organise a Meeting – Setting up a meeting is the first step in conflict management. Ask everyone involved for the most convenient time to hold a meeting, and ensure that it is not likely to be disrupted. All parties should be invited to speak, with the option of bringing a trusted colleague or a union representative if necessary. The first meeting may be relatively informal, but a leader or mediator may need to guide the conversation to ensure that it is productive. Setting ground rules at the start can help with the discussion. The mediator or manager should be diplomatic and constructive, and they must remain objective and avoid taking sides. This could be considered as favouritism and it is important that everyone in the company feels that they are being treated fairly and equally to avoid any potential conflict in the future.
- Professional Mediation – In some cases of serious conflict, you may need to hire a professional mediator who is neutral and not connected with the company. Having an unbiased third party present and leading the meeting can ensure that everyone’s opinions are heard equally.
- Emotional Detachment – In any situation, it can be difficult to remove our emotions from any particular situation, as it is our emotions that make us human. However, whilst emotions may have little business in conflict management, naming the way you feel and why can be an essential way of addressing it. For example, if you are feeling angry, consider why you are angry to establish a tangible example. Keeping conversations goal-orientated and focusing on such concrete evidence can help to ensure that mediation is successful and conflict is resolved.
- Finding Areas of Agreement – Finding points on which parties agree can be an effective way to move the discussion forward. This may include agreement on the issue itself or just the need to change. Rather than concentrating on a person’s possible mistakes, the focus must be on how to prevent such errors from being repeated in the future.
- Follow Up – During the meeting, you should also determine an appropriate course of action, if the issue continues to be unresolved. After the meeting has taken place, the manager should follow up to ensure that the conflict has been appropriately resolved. This may include speaking with the members of the team one on one or holding another group meeting at a later date.
- Reflection and Evaluation – As professionals, each person is responsible for reflecting upon their own practice and using this to evaluate how they can move forward. The management team also need to recognise how they could improve. Feedback is essential, and this includes bottom-up feedback, in which the team also analyse the management and the areas that could be improved.
Can conflict always be resolved?
The short answer to this question is no. On occasion, conflict may occur which cannot be easily resolved and keeping the members of staff on the same team is just likely to cause further issues in the future. Whilst conflict resolution is the key goal here, it is not always possible and management may need to change people’s job roles if there is a clash. Moreover, if the conflict is considered to be a result of discrimination or harassment, further action may need to be taken.
Bullying, Discrimination and Harassment
There is a distinct difference between conflict in the workplace, and bullying, discrimination and harassment. In the UK, discrimination based on the following nine protected characteristics is illegal. These are:
- Marriage and civil partnership
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Religion or belief
- Sexual orientation.
Companies have a responsibility under the law to ensure that this is not permitted within their organisation. Harassment is defined within the Equality Act as being ‘unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment for that individual’. Recently, there has been an increased focus on the existence of sexual harassment, and leadership teams must ensure that this does not occur or is dealt with efficiently.
Bullying in the workplace is also of serious concern and can have a significant impact on a person’s mental health and wellbeing. If an employee is identified as a bully, you may wish to begin tribunal processes or ask them to leave.
How to manage conflict in the workplace
Make meetings face to face
Although virtual technology certainly has its uses, evidence has indicated that conflict resolution is more successful when we meet face to face. Meeting in-person means that we can pick up on important visual clues as well as being able to understand the tone of the speaker.
Providing the opportunity to practise communication and listening skills, and having a role-play session with your team, is a great way to highlight excellent practice when it comes to conflict resolution.
Be careful when hiring
It is important to ensure careful hiring to help prevent conflict issues in the future. Whilst different personalities can and do work together successfully, it is often clear during the interview process as to whether a person will fit into your team well.
Ensure open communication channels
One of the main causes of conflict in the workplace is poor communication, and it is important that staff feel that they are able to fully communicate their issues with a trusted team member. This can help to ensure that issues are tackled fairly and swiftly.
Performance management and feedback
Regular performance reviews can also help to resolve conflict issues at work, and feedback can be an essential tool in our personal growth. However, this should also include a review of the management team in order for it to be truly effective.
Conflict is an unavoidable part of our lives, and we are not always likely to agree on everything. However, by ensuring that conflict can be resolved effectively, it can also allow for positive growth and professional development. It can even be a tremendous learning opportunity for those involved and others within the company.
Hopefully, our handy guide to conflict in the workplace has provided some useful tips and tricks for reaching a resolution and moving forward.