Business Bites: Conflict in the workplace

Nick Walsh FBDO
ABDO head of corporate development

Poor communication is just one potential cause for conflict

Conflict can happen in any workplace and in any industry, no matter how many employees are in the business. It can happen between individuals, between staff and a customer or patient, or between larger groups of employees.

Damaged relationships can be difficult or impossible to repair and conflicts with customers or patients can damage a business’ reputation, harming the business as a whole. A 2021 survey and report prepared for ACAS reported that, in total, the cost of conflict to UK organisations was £28.5bn – the equivalent of more than £1,000 for each employee. It also found that close to 10 million people experienced conflict at work; and that it can occur across a wide range of behaviours from a personality clash to more serious issues like bullying and harassment. This is why conflict resolution and knowing how to properly intervene is essential.

Types of conflict

There are many types of conflict, and these may include, but are not limited to:
• Personal or relational conflict
• Conflicts of interests between individuals, departments, or individual values versus organisational values
• Conflicts relating to alleged discrimination
• Individual or team performance when deemed to be poor by others
• Leadership styles. There is no one size fits all and styles need to be flexed based on circumstances and individuals
• Disagreements between organisations

Causes of conflict

Causes of conflict may include, but are not limited to:
• Poor communication when individuals may not have been included in briefings or where the content was not pitched at a level suitable for the audience
• Differences in views, culture, values, ethics, and beliefs on an individual and organisational level
• Competency issues (underperformance)
• Personal issues conflicting with work obligations which may include ill health, presenteeism, absenteeism, carer responsibilities, etc
• Internal competition within an organisation, if not managed, can become a cause of conflict
• Resource allocation may be deemed as unfair and unequitable
• Flexible working and disparities between worker’s benefits
• And last but by no means least, management of change. Change is unfortunately often accompanied by conflict

The impact of conflict is not always negative, however, the financial cost to businesses can be high as seen earlier in this article.

Positive outcomes, if conflict is managed well, may include business growth/performance, development of individuals and teams, new ideas and innovation, process improvement, reduction of poor practice, increased engagement, compliance with organisational, regulatory, and legal requirements. Negative outcomes may include high staff turnover (and the associated costs of recruitment and training of new staff), damage to the brand, failure to meet targets, reduced quality, decreased customer satisfaction due to poor customer experience, litigation, and financial cost

Managing conflict

When managing conflict, there are many useful skills and behaviours including honesty, self-confidence, impartiality, negotiation, active listening, facilitation skills, ability to break the cycle of conflict – the list is long.

Emotional intelligence, as made popular by Daniel Goleman, offers ways to pre-empt, prevent, or minimise conflict. Rather than go into detail in this article, instead this linked article will be useful on this topic.

Here is a basic path for conflict management:
1. Be on the lookout for early signs of conflict and don’t be tempted to ignore it in the hope that it will resolve itself.
2. Remain assertive when talking with the parties involved. Give all parties opportunity to have their say and remain impartial and calm.
3. Take time to investigate the situation that has led to conflict to get to the underlying cause of the issues.
4. Decide how to tackle the situation – formal or informal routes are options.
5. Identify options (you may ask the parties to put forward suggested options) and agree a way forward.
6. Make sure that everyone is clear on what has been agreed and what their personal actions and responsibilities are.
7. Evaluate progress to ensure that actions are met. One-to-ones are a good way of checking in with the parties involved as part of their performance management and development meetings.

Techniques for managing and resolving conflict may be informal or formal.

In the CIPD ‘Guide to dealing with conflict at work’ there is encouragement to deal with conflict in informal ways and they offer the following guidance.

1. Be ready to facilitate
Make sure you engage in challenging conversations as soon as you begin to observe early signs of conflict (for example, a heated argument or an inappropriate personal remark). This shows you’re treating the conflict seriously and is a key part of handling conflict and people management issues. It’s more difficult to be respected if you’ve appeared to give certain behaviours tacit approval by letting a situation drift on for weeks or months. This may impede your capacity to build an environment in your team that is open, respectful, kind, fair and consistent, in which people feel ‘psychologically safe’.

2. Speak to each team member individually
If there’s an open disagreement between colleagues, or you suspect a conflict is developing, start by having an informal one-to-one discussion with each of the individuals concerned. This will help you identify the crux of the problem while giving you an opportunity to hear people’s concerns in a safe, confidential setting.

3. Bring both sides together to communicate
Once you’ve gained a clear understanding of the conflict (as well as everyone’s different perspectives on the problem), bring the parties together and act as an objective facilitator to find common ground. Your capacity to do this skilfully will depend not only on your ability to handle conflict and people management issues, but also you having built and sustained relationships and created an environment that is open, respectful, kind, fair and consistent.

4. Protect employees by removing them from conflict situations
In those instances where conflict has become particularly heated, it might simply be untenable (when one considers the needs of the rest of the team) to keep the disruptive colleague present. In these cases, in order to handle the conflict effectively, it might be necessary to temporarily separate team members who are in a conflict situation to prevent the situation from escalating.

5. Gather ideas on how to address conflict from within the team
In those cases where a dispute affects the whole team (for example, as a result of tensions arising from having to meet particular deadlines, or changes to working practices), hold a discussion or brainstorming meeting to find possible solutions. This will work most effectively when you have built good relationships with team members and created a culture in your team that is open, respectful, kind, fair and consistent, in which people feel ‘psychologically safe’ (where people feel they can speak up and share concerns, questions or ideas freely without being criticised or made to feel ‘wrong’ for doing so).

6. Follow up on conflicts after resolution
It’s tempting to hope that, once a conflict’s been resolved, the problem’s gone away for good. In many cases, however, one party or another will still feel aggrieved (to a greater or lesser extent). Part of handling conflict effectively is following up as appropriate to check that the issues have been resolved, and continuing to sustain good relationships with team members.

Even when you have made every effort to resolve the conflict, sometimes the situation can develop to the point where it’s appropriate to use formal procedures to address unresolved conflict. Formal methods should only be used if absolutely necessary, and in those cases where informal problem-solving has been unsuccessful. Formal techniques may involve following a disciplinary process or the use of conciliation and arbitration services such as ACAS.

Next month in Business Bites, we’ll be jargon busting ESG (enviromental, social and governance) in the workplace.