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Navigating workplace conflict: a guide to constructive management

From fiery discussions across the office to passive-aggressive email exchanges that could rival a Shakespearean drama, conflict is a natural part of workplace life.

If managed correctly, it can be constructive; but left to fester and it soon turns into a heated, organisation-wide issue, placing greater onus on leaders to get things in hand.

The cost of conflict

According to an international study by CPP Global, publishers of the famous Myers-Briggs personality-type survey, 85% of employees experience conflict at some point in their working lives. For 29%, this is constant, leading to undue stress and mental ill-health that could have long-term impact.

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Companies don’t go unscathed either. The government-funded organisation Acas reported that an average of 485,000 UK employees resign each year due to workplace disputes. In addition to damaging morale among remaining employees (making for a more negative company culture), anxiety, burnout and depression among affected staff lead to more sick days being taken, further adding to the £28.5 billion spent annually on navigating conflict, according to estimates from advisory group ReWAGE. This is on top of any potential lawsuits that might ensue.

So, what can employers do to mitigate this?

The first step in resolving workplace conflict is to open conversation, encouraging a neutral, pragmatic conflict style. People instinctively manage disagreements in unhelpful ways learnt during childhood, doing anything from belligerently insisting that they’re right to completely backing down. Ideally, we’re looking to strike a balance, teaching those involved to step back, breathe and approach things responsibly rather than reactively. This way, we can come to a harmonious conclusion.

How to have positive conflict at work

It's all about creating channels of clear, non-judgmental communication, turning misunderstandings into productive discussion, where each person is given an equal opportunity to voice the facts, their feelings and the things they want to happen.

This approach furthermore allows companies to reach the root cause of the problem, boosting their chances of peaceful, long-term resolution. For instance, it may be that one colleague, Peter, lashed out at another colleague, Jane, because he was stressed or perhaps didn’t hear things properly over a crowded office. Jane then retaliated defensively, feeling that the tasks he set her fell outside of her role. By understanding their emotions, it becomes much easier to find a reasonable solution.

Identifying causes of conflict

From personal conflicts and personality clashes to breakdowns in relationships caused by misunderstandings and miscommunication, the causes of workplace dispute are multiple and varied. By learning to recognise the signs and symptoms of these conflicts early on, managers can intervene before things escalate beyond resolution.

Conflict a common occurrence at work

In order to do this, however, managerial staff must be given the right training. This is something that is severely lacking in most workplace environments, with the CIPD’s Managing Conflict in the Modern Workplace Report (2020) revealing that only 62% of the 406 managers they had surveyed who had received people management training had engaged in conflict management training as well.

Managing conflict for managers

Despite low confidence in their mediatory capabilities, managers spend a significant proportion of their time dealing with workplace conflicts. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that conflict resolution could take up as much as 40% of a person's average working day. This is yet another reason to invest in the training and support needed to create a conflict-free culture, in order to avoid subsequent reductions in profits and productivity.

Some of the things that managerial staff can do to boost harmony in the workplace include communicating openly and honestly themselves. This invites other employees to do so, creating a culture not of silent resentment but of constructive, respectful, transparent discussion. This, in turn, will turn differences in opinion into something positive for your business: greater innovation brought about by improved problem-solving and a range of different perspectives.

Likewise, companies could look at introducing team-building days to help channel colleagues’ competitive energies into more collaborative efforts, in addition to ensuring that each and every workplace meeting ends on a positive note, with clearly defined collective goals for each member of the team. This creates an atmosphere of trust and collaboration, allowing everyone to perform at their absolute best, in the best interests of the wider company and team.

Reducing conflict through culture

Employers often forget that preventing conflict at work is about more than solving problems once they have arisen. Indeed, it is equally as important to foster an environment in which collective efforts are recognised and rewarded. By celebrating team victories and setting out clearly defined cultural values for everyone to follow, there’s little room for interpersonal struggles about who should be doing what – with everyone more likely to work together towards the same direction.

Embracing the challenge

While eliminating conflict entirely is not always possible, by learning to embrace conflict in the workplace, you can transform arguments into a force for positive change. With the right strategies and HR support in place, you can create a workplace that thrives on differences in approach and opinion, turning challenges into opportunities for growth and innovation.

By Michael Doolin, CEO at Clover HR