What is your usual conflict style?
Competitive – where your own needs are advocated over the needs of others
Collaborative – the pooling of individual needs and goals toward a common goal
Compromising – an approach to conflict in which people gain and give in a series of trade-offs
Accommodating – also known as smoothing
Avoiding – a common response to the negative perception of conflict
We often come across a real fear of conflict in management and senior leadership and also find that this can severely impact the effectiveness and morale within the team.
Researching workers in 9 countries, a 2008 study revealed that an overwhelming majority (85%) of employees at all levels experience conflict to some degree. Furthermore, they found that U.S. employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict, equating to approximately $359 billion in paid hours in 2008.
If managed improperly, businesses’ productivity, operational effectiveness, and morale take a major hit. This is evidenced in the same report’s finding that 27 percent of employees have witnessed conflict develop into a personal attack, while 25 percent say that the avoidance of conflict resulted in sickness or absence from work
So why is it that there is so little investment in conflict management training within organisations?
We constantly hear of problems within public service, health and commercial organisations where the only conflict management training received is defensive training for front-line staff. There seems to be an avoidance of dealing with inter-organisational conflict which can produce resentment and stress, as well as having a negative impact on productivity and customer service.
Even if the disagreement or clash is ignored, the destructive emotions experienced by those involved don’t simply vanish. Over half of employees (57%) have left a conflict situation with negative feelings, most commonly de-motivation, anger and frustration. Workers in the UK are most likely to feel this way, with 65% admitting to negative emotions from conflict.
This risk-averse approach to conflict management in many organisations may partly be a legacy of the dramatic rise in individual disputes over the past fifty years. Applications to employment tribunals in the UK grew rapidly, from just under 35,000 in 1989/90 to over 230,000 two decades later. However, ignoring the problem is surely more likely to open the organisation up to discrimination and constructive dismissal claims?
Fear of conflict and a lack of confidence in tackling difficult conversations can also lead to the eradication of constructive debate and the sharing of ideas with staff reluctant to put their point across.
We see this a lot with many of the managers who come to us for help and this view is also substantiated by the Saundry et al article (listed below) which describes a “palpable fear” amongst junior managers of “internal criticism” should they get things wrong.
And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Simply giving managers the tools and confidence to facilitate open and honest conversations can have a major positive impact.
Over three quarters (76%) of employees have identified a good end-result from conflict. This is usually because they feel that they are listened to and that the airing of the problem has meant that they can move on from it.
Handled well, people can also respect both the logic and the emotion involved from all parties which can lead to a much deeper level of understanding and acceptance going forward.
In his article for the Harvard Review, Ben Dattner talk about the problems with Groupthink:
“….when teams or organizations operate on autopilot and feel a general false sense of invulnerability. They wind up maintaining course without appropriately considering emerging risks, debating alternative scenarios, or exploring new courses of action.
Groupthink happens because of basic social and interpersonal dynamics that include a wish for group harmony, pressures for conformity, increased commitment to ill-advised or outdated strategies, and punishment of dissenters. Once a team has reached, or appears to have reached, a consensus, it can be very hard for any individual to challenge the group’s interpretation of reality or predictions about the future — or to push back on what the group plans to do (or not do) — without running the risk of being perceived as a heretic or becoming a scapegoat. These dynamics make it hard for teams to recognize or to be fully cognizant of new disruptive challenges, while also stifling the creative innovation that is necessary to proactively confront such challenges.”
We constantly find that working with teams to encourage open debate and alternative thinking enables the organisation to reap the benefits of the ideas of employees on the ground, maximise their business flexibility and allows staff engagement to be optimised.
We would love to help your managers and teams develop to embrace debate and have the skills to manage conflict situations both before they arise and during their resolution.
Just give Andy and Jo a call to discuss your current challenges and how they can help
023 9244 9616
Harris et al. ‘Unlocking Engagement: A Review of the ‘Innovative Workplaces’ Initiative’. Acas research paper. 2011
Saundry, R., Jones, C. and Wibberley. G ‘The challenge of managing informally’, Employee Relations. 2015