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Conflict in the workplace is nothing new.
It’s a fact of life. And for most of us it’s an unpleasant fact of life, something that irritates us, unsettles us, annoys us and distracts us from what we’re doing. It’s not so much that it’s a major part of working life but that when it does arise we tend not to deal with it too well.
Conflicts have a habit of going unresolved and that costs us in terms of time, money and emotional well-being.
Consider these statistics from a joint OPP and CIPD study in 2008:
- The average UK employee spends 1.8 hours a week dealing with conflict (either being involved in a disagreement or mediating between others who disagree)
- This equates to 370 million working days lost per year
- Employees find it demotivating, stressful and frustrating
- Total cost to UK employers – £24 billion per annum
- So what’s causing this conflict and what can we do to about it?
Personality clashes and warring egos were the top reasons given for conflict arising in UK workplaces (these were cited by almost 50% of employees who were surveyed in the study)
- Next on the list were stress and overwork/lack of resources (in other words, stress, stress and more stress)
- Poor leadership at the top and poor line management were cited by 29% and 23% of respondents respectively
- Lack of role clarity and accountability clarity were cited by 22% and 21% respectively
Often it’s tempting to look for ways to contain conflict, to suppress it or even just blank it out and hope it’ll go away; ignore tensions within the team, turn a blind eye toward bad behaviour, silence dissent, frown upon “negativity”. This is classic British hierarchical thinking – keep your head down, no undue displays of emotion, don’t rock the boat! But is it a good idea? Probably not. More likely it allows conflicts to fester and run out of control.
Asked “What could managers do to address conflict more effectively?” the top two answers were:
- Identify and address underlying tensions before things go wrong
- Have more informal one-to-one conversations with people they manage
The implications are clear – an awful lot of conflict might be nipped in the bud if managers were better attuned to what was going on with their staff and if they engaged effectively with the issues and parties concerned. But is it just the manager’s job to head conflict off? Not at all. While many employees feel managers and senior managers should play a major part in managing conflict effectively, 62% feel that everyone is responsible for playing their part.
So far so good, and many employees do indeed deal well with conflict, either because they don’t mind it so much, or because they’ve been trained to cope with it.
Conflict is natural!
Let’s be clear – hard core conflict and persistent troublemakers need to be met with an appropriately tough response – in short, my way or the highway. But what about the kinds of low-level conflict most of us experience at work?
- Personality clashes
- Disagreements about who should do what why and how
- Political manoeuvrings
- Differences of opinion
- Conflicts of interest
- Falling out amongst friends
This is life! And like any other aspect of life, it can take practice and persistence to handle it well. For those prepared to make the effort, the rewards are there to be had:
- Dealing with conflict better
- Avoiding it altogether
- Enhanced understanding of ourselves and others
- Gaining positive outcomes for ourselves and others
The Need for Constructive Dialogue
At The Colour Works we believe people should argue more often. Or maybe we should say “discuss” more often. “Arguing” sounds too fractious, too aggressive. But then again, “discussing” sounds a bit tame, a bit meek, like no-one really minds how things turn out – a nice chance for a chat and a cup of coffee. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of heat.
People should express themselves, say what’s on their minds, offer opinions, chew the fat, thrash things out a little. How else are we to harness the forces at work in conflict situations and turn them to good advantage?
Senior managers really need to set the course for middle managers to follow. Healthy, spirited, respectful discussion should be part and parcel of ‘the way we do business around here’. Never mind furtive conversations behind closed doors and win-lose decision-making, constructive debate should be the order of the day. What’s right for the business and those who work in it should take precedence over ‘siloism’. Win-win thinking should prevail over a win-at-all-costs mentality. And for that to happen, people need to learn how to manage their emotions.
We’re creatures of habit – by and large we do what we do. But behaviour that seems perfectly natural and acceptable to one person may not seem so acceptable to another, and we forget this time and time again.
Personality clashes are often just examples of the colour model at work – people being themselves and clashing with other people who prefer a different style. But it’s not enough just to be aware of this as an idea, we have to use it, work with it, moderate our behaviour, adapt our style. People need to be trained and coached to do this, both individually and within their teams, and they need to practise it until they become skilled at it and comfortable with it.
If managers aren’t hearing rumbles of discontent within their teams, why is this? Are they just not listening, or are people not speaking loudly enough? If they’re not intervening early on, what are they afraid of? These things need to be discussed by all concerned, thrashed out if necessary, without fear. This takes personal and group awareness. It requires people to tune in to their emotions, to understand what triggers frustration or anxiety and what calms it down.
If there’s a key to managing and harnessing conflict, it’s our ability to connect with one another emotionally; to talk openly and honestly, to listen without prejudice or preconceptions, and to work with one another co-operatively and collaboratively. What could be better than that?
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