• They have no skills in constructive conflict engagement
• They fear that if they fail to deal with it well it will reflect badly on their career in general and current role in particular
• They fear it will end badly for the participants who will then have difficulty working together
• They see conflict as ‘bad’ – they have not been able to reframe it in their mind as ‘the grit in the oyster that produces the pearl’
This last point is particularly worth considering. Conflict in most cases is stressful and unpleasant; however, it can be productive if the outcome leads to positive change. An oft-cited Harvard Business Review article – ‘Productive Friction – A Key to Accelerating Business Innovation’ by John Seely Brown and John Hagel – talked about creative abrasion and productive friction. It notes that “creative sparks fly not when interactions between companies are seamless but when the activity at the seams is challenging stimulating and catalytic”.
“When people learn some conflict engagement skills and where the culture of a workplace makes room for a culture that allows robust engagement, then conflict can be an effective part of the business environment,” Dr Rosemary Howell, of The Dispute Group, suggests.
For instance, conflict regarding ideas within a team can be productive if the individuals involved are willing to work through opposing solutions together to come up with a solution. “Sometimes, the compromise that is reached through such a process can be better for the business than the initial ideas put forward,” Adrianna Loveday, general manager HR consulting at recruitment firm Randstad, says.
Conflict – it’s everywhere!
Workplace conflicts reflect all the conflicts of life: relationships; business operations; and culture and values. Each kind of conflict plays out differently, and as with all disputes, the conflict is often not about what it seems to be about.
Loveday generally sees two forms of workplace conflict. The first is when an employee’s decisions, ideas or behaviors are in opposition to what is required as part of their role. These conflicts are generally easier to resolve, particularly when the organization has a strong grievance resolution policy in place. Quite often the terms and conditions of the guidelines in place have not been effectively communicated to the employee, and once the employee is made aware of the issue they will quickly correct their behavior.
The other type of conflict occurs when two people simply do not get along, ie a personality clash. “Personality clashes can be dangerous within organizations, largely because they can lead to reduced productivity and discontented teams,” Loveday says. “These are also not only confined to the workplace but are also likely to overflow into an employee’s personal sphere and disrupt their general sense of well-being.”
However, it’s important to note that while personality clashes such as this are quite prominent, employers should be careful not to use this as an excuse to avoid addressing the real causes of conflict.
Conflicts about culture are far more challenging. “Very often these touch on behavior which is unacceptable and not negotiable,” Howell says. “There needs to be consequences for this behavior and often a public signal that this has happened. Failure to do this rewards bad behavior and makes it plain that there is a gap between cultural aspiration and culture in practice. In the end, this creates a cynical and demoralized workplace.”
Avoid it – it won’t go away
The human default is to avoid conflict, and in the workplace this can often result in temporary solutions being used to avoid dealing with the deeper issues.
Naturally, a problem untreated only grows larger. Unresolved conflict in the workplace has been linked to miscommunication, increased stress, reduced co-operation and productivity, distrust among colleagues and lower levels of team problem solving and creativity. Conflict avoidance can also result in destructive office behaviors such a gossiping, venting to co-workers or misdirected frustration.
Another major ramification of ignoring conflict is that an external or legal party may be consulted if employees feel they cannot deal with the situation internally with senior management. This can lead to financial penalty, and the organization’s employer branding can be negatively impacted.
Some conflict resolution tips
Having a structured grievance policy in place seems almost like a box-ticking exercise in many companies. How can conflict resolution be moved beyond box ticking towards having a culture where it’s OK for people to voice grievances?
Howell admits this is a constant struggle for businesses. The real issue is that businesses view conflict resolution as a risk management or an operational issue. It is actually a strategic issue, she notes, and is part of how a business defines itself. “It has the potential to be a force for good or for destruction depending on the focus it is given,” she says.
The first step should be to run a new employee through the policies relating to disciplinary and grievance procedures. Allow all staff access to these documents, through an intranet or other tool, so they can refer to the policies whenever they need to.
Secondly, ensure your workplace culture fosters open communication and collaboration. In order to establish a culture where employees feel they can be heard, ensure established avenues of communication are available so they always have somewhere to voice concerns.
By managing disputes quickly and effectively, employers can maintain good working relationships with their employees. “Workers will likely be more co-operative and productive if they know their grievances will be taken seriously by senior management. A good dispute resolution process may help to avoid the costs of resolving a claim externally,” Loveday concludes.
Let’s be clear upfront: most managers – most humans in fact – dislike conflict. Indeed, perhaps a stronger word than ‘dislike’ needs to be used in this instance. Most managers fear conflict, due to several factors: