The ability to identify the nature of conflict and create a work environment that enables employees and companies to benefit through effective conflict management is the mark of a successful organisational leader. Until very recently, organisations considered workplace conflict completely undesirable. Nowadays, we are beginning to view it as both functional and dysfunctional. Here are ten tips to use when managing workplace conflict.
Managing workplace conflict
Conflicts between team members exist within every organisation. Frequently colleagues do not want or need to find a complete resolution. Ignoring or hoping conflict will go away is not an option. Trying to eliminate it is equally futile.
Rather than looking for a compromise that suits no one, many leaders are recognising that conflict is inevitable and actually has real benefits for the company. Conflict can:
- Increase creativity
- Force frank exchange of ideas
- Spark a competition to succeed or improve
- Challenge existing perspectives and processes
When handled skilfully these unexpected side effects can increase the effectiveness of individuals and teams. It is, however, a balancing act: the consequences of unresolved conflict are many and include loss of productivity and creativity, increased stress, non-co-operation among staff and high turnover.
Causes of conflict
Conflict arises from many different sources, but some of the most common are:
- Poor communication
- Incomplete, incorrect or ambiguous information
- Multiple levels and channels of reporting, that delay and distort information
- Weak or autocratic management style
- Cultural, social or personal differences
- Inappropriate use of authority
- A lack of, or too much, recognition and reward, leading to perceptions of unfairness
Admittedly, managing conflict takes a heavy toll on the time and energy of managers. According to research by specialist temporary staffing firm Accountemps, managers spend on average 18% of their time – more than seven hours a week – dealing with employee disputes.
Managing conflict takes a heavy toll on the time and energy of managers
This is nevertheless time well spent: the effects of unresolved conflict, even between two individuals or a small group, can impact the whole organisation, creating factions or poisoning of the working atmosphere.
When leaders and HR do not address conflict with effective strategies, the workplace is not only uncomfortable for those involved and for bystanders. The conflict can evolve to have a destructive and dangerous impact on productivity and performance.
Case study: conflict in cricket
If you wanted to write a manual on how not to manage conflict, you would find that international cricket is a rich resource.
Far from being the ‘gentleman’s game’, cricket has a history of some very public conflicts. Most recently, English cricketer Kevin Pietersen’s sacking, after the team’s embarrassing 2014 Ashes whitewash, came after three years of mishandled conflict.
Whatever the true causes of the issues were that led to the team’s poor performance, the media began to refer to is as ‘the Pietersen problem.’ Even Paul Downton, the English team’s managing director referred to ‘the Pietersen problem’ in an unguarded interview.
Far from being the ‘gentleman’s game’, cricket has a history of some very public conflicts
The team leadership saw that the individual himself had become a barrier to the resolution of the situation, and that the coach could not address team’s poor performances until they dealt with the issue. The conflict and the personality became so linked that to remove one meant removing the other.
It wasn’t until the very end of this testing period that Paul Downton, the English team’s managing director, engaged the playing and support staff in individual discussions to root out the causes of the conflict.
We, the public, only saw the outward signs of the conflict:
- inappropriate messages to the opposition
- noticeable disinterest during matches
- poor performance
It seems that the team’s leadership tried to micromanage these superficial symptoms, rather than finding and dealing with the fundamental causes.
Not dealing with those underlying causes of the conflict caused it to develop to a stage where Downton’s only course of action was to terminate Pietersen’s contract in the hope that an amputation would save the body.
There is no doubt that Pietersen’s creativity and exuberance on the cricket field added to the quality of the English team and the viewing experience for the public, but unmanaged disagreement always leads to destruction.
The public are, of course, not privy to the inside conversations. The sides included a non-disclosure clause in the subsequent legal settlement which further covered up in the details of the disagreement. We can however draw some conclusions from this and from other workplace conflicts to help us transform destructive conflict into a workplace rich with diversity of opinion and styles.
Preventative measures when managing workplace conflict
Here are 10 tips to help manage and harness conflict to create a harmonious and productive workplace:
1. Have clearly defined, accessible job descriptions, so that employees know exactly what is expected of them and their colleagues
2. Create a framework that clearly states norms of unacceptable behaviour, such as guidelines on gossip, manipulation and emotional blackmail
3. Maintain a level playing field where concerns of all are taken into account
4. Root out the real nature of the conflict. Is it a personal differences or a professional disagreement? Personal can be disruptive and destructive, whereas professional can be productive in a tolerant and open-minded work environment.
5. Separate the problem from the person
Strong and effective conflict management tactics are imperative before a conflict escalates into a crisis
6. Listen to both sides when there is conflict or disagreement, while mediating, and get both sides to commit and take ownership for the agreed upon solution
7. Make participants aware of consequences if they renege on the agreed resolution
8. Record and review the situation at a future date to check if the issue remains resolved satisfactorily
9. Create an energised atmosphere where differences are respected and appreciated, even welcomed
10. Pick your battles. Know when to step in and when to back off, avoid micromanaging minor issues and focus on those that jeopardise productivity and staff morale
Strong and effective conflict management tactics are imperative before a conflict escalates into a crisis.
The winning tactic is to harness and manage workplace conflict, which can promote energy, creativity, re-evaluation and innovation within a tolerant team that appreciates healthy differences of personalities and ideas.