+61 417 642 341 ush@collaboratehr.com.au

How to Manage Workplace Conflict More Effectively

Workplace Conflict

Could you be looking at workplace conflict more constructively? Instead of talking about ‘resolving’ it, would it better to think in terms of ‘managing’ it?

While workplace conflict is almost universally considered negative, are there instances when it can bring positive outcomes for an organisation?

And are you taking the longer-term measures required to address a deeply engrained problem with conflict?

Here I take a look at the nature of workplace conflict – and what you can start doing about it.

Understanding conflict

The Victorian government states the following on its ‘Better Health’ website:

“Workplace conflict is bad for business because it can lead to downturns in productivity and increases in absenteeism.”

This can certainly be the case, of course. When people are constantly at each other’s throats, can’t stand their boss, or when there is a big clash of egos, stress levels rise, tempers may flare, and things can get out of hand quickly. This can have a negative effect not only on the individuals concerned, but can create a toxic atmosphere in the workplace – which can spread rapidly to others.

However, conflict can also result from a clash not of personalities or egos, but from a difference in ideas. A clash of ideas is often a creative force that can help to generate new solutions, products, and services etc. This type of conflict, then, is not necessarily a negative consequence of a dysfunctional organisation; we should not look on it as something that needs to be ‘fixed’ but a natural consequence of human beings working together.

The CPP Global Human Capital Report on Workplace Conflict from 2008 studied employees in nine countries. It noted the following:

“…ineffectively managed conflict is costing businesses millions of dollars per year. Yet conflict has a bounty of positive potential, which if harnessed correctly, can stimulate progress in ways harmony often cannot.”

“Roughly three quarters of workers reported positive outcomes that resulted from conflict – results that in all likelihood would not have been produced if conflict was not initiated. “

So workplace conflict should not be viewed in a uniformly negative light. Rather, it is an inevitable part of life at work and there may be positives to look for. In short, it needs to be managed.

Long-term measures for managing conflict

We need to think not in terms of eliminating, resolving, or avoiding conflict from the workplace; that would be like trying to run away from a tiger while trapped in a cage with it. We cannot escape it. The question is how do we manage conflict? How does leadership turn conflict into a ‘good tiger’?

How do we ensure that a difference of ideas or beliefs doesn’t transform into aggressive or abusive behaviour, needless ‘sick’ days, a lowering of morale and productivity, and other negative consequences for the organisation?

It’s not about ‘putting out fires’, keeping warring parties apart, or lowering workloads to reduce stress levels.

Essentially we are talking about channelling the energy from conflict into creativity and this is not easy. It may take a shift in leadership culture and mind-set but it is possible if you put the right long-term measures in place. This goes beyond conflict management training into ways to increase emotional intelligence in the workplace.

The number one causes of workplace conflict are lack of understanding of personality and inability to control one’s emotions, so the starting places are:

Improve understanding of yourself

To address both of these main causes, people must first understand themselves better; they need to have a good grasp of their own strengths and weaknesses, their own personality ‘type’, and their characteristic traits. They must understand how they process information and make decisions, how to recognise the ‘alarm bells’ when they feel stress levels and emotions rising, and how to manage stress responses and emotions when triggered. Psychometric testing can help with this.

Improve understanding of other people

Next, people need to be encouraged to learn about the types of personalities around them in the workplace, and how they interact with them. They should learn about character traits common to everyone and how some are more dominant than others; how they manifest themselves and create emotions. People are always interested in WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”). It’s important to learn to listen to others to understand why they are behaving how they do, and approach the problem with positivity and compassion rather than negativity and judgement.

Improve communication

Poor communication is another major cause of conflict. Lack of information, wrong information, or no information results in misunderstandings that can be avoided. People tend to ‘fill in the gaps’ when they don’t have enough information, and we all know where that may lead. So it’s important to create clear ways of communicating throughout the organisation.

Invest in a culture of engagement

Are people free to speak openly and honestly? Do they understand their role and how it serves the wider goals of the organisation? Do they feel connected and engaged with their colleagues and leadership? People are less likely to get involved in negative conflict if they enjoy coming to work and feel part of – rather than apart from – the organisation. Invest in a culture that makes life at work more enjoyable and stress-free; you will see fewer instances of harmful conflict.

Conflict can be tough to address but it is part of a leader’s job to manage it effectively. Burying your head in the sand is not an option as it can escalate and become a major issue.

The changes described can seem rather profound. However, emotional intelligence involves skills that we all possess, but that may be buried deep within. They need to be brought to the surface.

Remember that conflict can be an opportunity rather than a problem. Implement some basic behavioural guidelines to define what’s acceptable and what’s not, develop an action plan to deal with short-term conflict rapidly, and create a longer-term plan to manage conflict by introducing more emotional intelligence into the workplace.

Problems with workplace conflict? If you’d like to discuss ways of addressing it, start by emailing me at: ush@collaboratehr.com.au.