UK: A Different Light... The Benefit Of Workplace Conflict

Article by Ranse Howell and Graham Massie

Originally Published February 2009

With the holidays behind us, and economic troubles looming, employee morale is running low and managers are having to deal with a vast array of HR issues many of which surface in the form of conflict in the workplace. Disagreements that disrupt the flow of work are, of course, inevitable - and costly. The time spent managing the conflict adds up, and distracted employees inevitably produce work of comparatively lower quality.

According to the July 2008 report 'Fight, flight or face it', published by OPP in association with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, "poorly managed conflicts in the workplace are crippling British business. The average UK employee spends over two hours a week dealing with conflict, which means in total more than 370 million working days were lost last year at a cost to British employers of more than £24 billion".

CEDR's own research has shown that a single dispute with a management level employee resulting in tribunal proceedings can take as much as 49 days of senior management time – time not spent managing the business.

There is, however, an opportunity to reduce the time and effort spent dealing with conflict by encouraging employees and managers to deal with it effectively. The proactive engagement with conflict, although initially seen as a less favourable option (facing up to a conflict situation rather than ignoring it), will often produce positive results. Through engaging in difficult conversations and dealing with conflict situations, employees are likely to be more satisfied, reducing the stress and dissention in the workplace; and thus increasing job satisfaction and improving productivity.

So we encourage managers to look at conflict from a different perspective – an opportunity for a collaboration of ideas rather than a clash or disruption. Think of conflict as being potentially constructive, even beneficial to your company or organisation, if managed effectively. To take advantage of the opportunity conflict has to offer, consider the following:

  • Recognising the value of conflict at work
  • Being prepared to have a difficult conversation.

The value of conflict at work

Conflict is instinctively seen by many as something to be avoided, particularly in the workplace. However, a zero tolerance policy when it comes to workplace conflict is not only unrealistic but also counterproductive. If a culture is created wherein conflict is suppressed, although it forces employees to appear to be working in uniformity what it fails to address is the possibility of unrest and the destruction that might be developing. The disallowance of conflict in its broadest sense causes employees to remain silent when they might otherwise contribute creative and beneficial ideas based on their own experiences. This in turn can dampen enthusiasm and reduce creativity, damaging relationships and providing a reason for employees to exit the organisation.

There is a benefit to engaging in conflict during strategic moments in a project or when faced with situations or workplace opportunities that need addressing. Encourage employees to share their thoughts and ideas; be open to employees challenging ideas and policies, and respond to constructive criticism wisely. What has been recognised by those who study conflict is that task conflict (what should be done), and process conflict (how should it be done), are essential elements of the creative process and thus have a vital impact on the development and success of any project – however, relationship conflict (who is involved and how they inter-relate) is something that should be discouraged because this causes the most long-term damage and distraction – we're all familiar with the disagreement about policy which becomes 'personal'.

If interpersonal conflict is not recognised and managed properly, personal clashes may arise at an inappropriate time, particularly when stress runs high and resources are low. This is an unnecessary risk and could be avoided if employees are recognised as a resource, thus turning destructive conflict into a productive interaction.

Have difficult conversations with your employees

The ability to have a process and strategy for engaging in difficult conversations plays a big role in the effective management of conflict. Though it may seem easier to ignore a problem and hope it resolves itself, unaddressed conflict, like poor performance, will more often than not fester into a situation much more complicated than when it first began. This inevitably will mean that there is an even more difficult conversation to have.

It is, therefore, essential for managers to address underlying conflicts and tensions at work when they are first brought to your attention (or when appropriate to be addressed – one of the most important things to understand about having a difficult conversation is knowing when to have it).

Briefly, some key points to engaging in difficult conversations are as follows:

  • be prepared for the conversation – work out in advance what you want to achieve from the conversation and how you're going to do it;
  • actively listen; ask appropriate questions; recognise their emotion and your emotional response;
  • gauge what they are willing to hear, and accept, in order for the conversation to be productive;
  • respect that their side of the story is their personal truth – yours may not be the only perspective that's relevant, and there may be information or perceptions that you're not aware of;
  • at the same time, provide great clarity as to what is expected of your employees.

If employees are aware of your expectations, and you have engaged in the conversation effectively, a future for workable dialogue may have been created and a future conflict may be prevented. Whatever your relationship is with your employees, create a personal policy that suits the setting, formal or informal, and that fosters effective communication (consistency is essential when managing others).

So remember ...

With both managers and employees feeling the strain of the current financial situation, the last thing that many of them want to do is engage in yet further conflict (actual or perceived). However, the need to engage in conflict and knowing when and how to conduct a difficult conversation should be seen as essential tools to ensure an effective management strategy and maintaining employee/management wellbeing. Engaging in conflict may actually help reduce it!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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