Conflict in the Workplace and How to Manage it!
Recent statistics show that bullying complaints are on the rise in organisations around Australia, leading to more tribunals, increased compensation claims and adverse publicity about conflict in the workplace.
Whilst some may argue that workplace behaviour hasn't changed much over the years and that the rise in complaints is due to an increased awareness of what is acceptable and what's not - the fact remains that conflict can be a costly practice to ignore. According to the Productivity Commission, the cost of workplace bullying in Australia is somewhere between $6 billion and $36 billion a year.
Although some aspects of our daily work lives, for example dealing with traffic, increased workload, lack of recognition, reward and development are becoming the rule rather than the exception, the good news is that conflict in the workplace can be managed - and even avoided.
Is There a Place for Conflict in the Workplace?
A small amount of tension and conflict in the workplace is normal and to be expected. As explained by the Team Development model by Bruce Tuckerman, there is even a phase called 'Storming' that all teams go through in order to get to the 'Norming' and 'Performing' stages.
The storming stage is commonly characterised by employees jostling for position and responsibility. They may be challenging the norms, taking some risks and demanding improvements and changes. When this type of behaviour occurs it is bound to cause natural tensions, as any type of change brings out the worst in many.
Even though we may be striving for change or wanting responsibility, employees and managers need to understand that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Great communication and negotiation skills are crucial as natural tensions can quickly escalate to conflict and serious problems in the workplace.
Any conflict that adversely impacts another person for a period of time or in a serious or severe manner, such as bullying, discrimination and harassment are not acceptable in any circumstance.
What is the Impact of Conflict in the Workplace?
Conflict in the workplace can manifest itself in many different ways, from singular instances of frustration and annoyance to crisis point where extreme measures such as sabotage may be contemplated. It can also occur from junior level right through to senior management or higher. Whatever the reasons or the regularity, the impact of conflict in the workplace has a raft of consequences, including:
Lost Work Hours - Whilst incidents happen and issues are investigated, the core business and operations of the company can be disrupted.
Increased Workload - Key personnel such as HR professionals will have an increase in workload and can spend many hours investigating and dealing with the situation at hand.
Decreased Employee Morale - Conflict in the workplace can quickly turn into a negative for employee morale and workplace culture.
Increased Chance of Workplace Accidents or Stress Related Injury - When employees are unhappy or stressed they can easily be distracted from the task at hand. This increases the likelihood of workplace accidents or injuries. Employees can also suffer mentally and emotionally with things like depression, anxiety and other stress related illnesses.
Employee Turnover - Employees who are amidst continual conflict, or even those who witness it, may find themselves unsatisfied with their work resulting in increased resignations. This also has a flow on effect of increased recruitment costs and time to hire replacements.
Legal Costs - There are many costs that can be associated with conflict in terms of tribunals, legal claims and compensation costs.
Causes of Conflict in the Workplace:
Many larger scale conflicts, compensation claims and tribunals could have been avoided by paying closer attention to what causes conflict in the workplace and having in place the systems and processes required to avoid it. Some common causes are:
Personal Differences - Today's workforce and business environment consists of people with diverse beliefs, attitudes and values due to their background and experience. This allows for a high potential for miscommunication and misinterpretation.
Generational Differences - There are currently wider age gaps in the workforce than ever before. Employees and managers need to be aware of the different implications and challenges that this brings.
Lack of Resources - If there is a lack of resources such as time, people or tools to do the job then this can cause competition and stress - both of which can lead to conflict arising.
Communication - People often assume that everyone communicates in the same manner. This is incorrect, as the way we deliver and receive communication is based on our own personal experience, beliefs, culture, background, education etc. We therefore make assumptions of the meaning behind the communication based on this which can lead to misinterpretations and conflict.
Stress - Sometimes conflict is situational and circumstantial. We all have bad days, bad moods and other issues in our lives that may lead us to have less patience with our colleagues than normal.
Goal Incompatibility - Sometimes people have goals that interfere with each other. For example, Tom may be happy just coming into work, doing his routine job and then going home but his new manager Jodie wants to change things up and make some improvements, causing conflict and tension.
Lack of or Unclear Job Descriptions/Expectations - Conflict can also be caused if employees are unclear on who is responsible for each task/function and what the expectations are of them and others. If these are clearly defined there is less room for misunderstanding, duplication of work and conflict.
How to Avoid Conflict in the Workplace:
The first step in avoiding conflict is to be aware of the causes of conflict in the workplace. The next step is to put in place some proactive measures for avoiding conflict and dealing with it if required. Some of these measures may include:
A Streamlined On-boarding Process - It is vital to familiarise every employee with the policies and culture of the company, along with processes such as raising complaints.
Policies and Procedures - Every company should have clear, comprehensive policies and procedures based around conflict resolution, awareness of others and dealing with complaints and grievances.
Open Communication Across Departments & Levels - The more communication lines that are open in an organisation, the less likely someone is going to feel left out of the loop. Communication is a great tool for avoiding conflict. Ensuring that the organisation's managers have an open-door policy also helps employees to feel listened to and respected.
Training and Development - Training courses in areas such as communication skills, negotiation skills, managing difficult conversations and mediation are an excellent step for all employees and managers in their development. These types of courses have been proven to assist in dealing with and settling tension in the workplace before it develops into something more serious.
External Consultation - Involving a specialist dispute resolution and training organisation can have clear results, although it may be viewed as a ‘last resort’ due to the costs involved. Despite the costs, more organisations are becoming aware that the expense involved is often less than tribunals and compensation claims.
How to Manage Conflict if it Arises:
If conflict arises, the key to stopping it in its tracks is to ensure that you:
Show Understanding - First, be clear on what constitutes conflict as opposed to normal discussions or differences of opinion. They try to get to the bottom of why the conflict is arising. Everyone has things occurring in their life that no one else knows about. Try and show understanding and empathy.
Be Respectful - Being respectful and acknowledging everyone's point of view, even if it is different to your own goes a long way.
Communicate - Attempt to discuss the perceived conflict with the appropriate parties, including everyone that is involved as well as management and the Human Resources Department.
Take Positive Actions - Don't let a situation deteriorate; if conflict can be identified but not resolved, it is important to follow procedure as per the organisation's policies and procedures.
Move On - If conflict has occurred previously and has been resolved, it is important to be able to forgive and forget. Holding grudges, being weary and expecting the worst is only going to bring more conflict.