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Robert McHenry



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How to deal with conflict


Workplace conflict continues to sap productivity in the workplace. Robert McHenry offers some advice on how to manage these disagreements.

We recently completed a significant piece of research with the CIPD on workplace conflict. The bottom line is that it’s happening at all levels, being managed poorly by large swathes of the working population and costing British business billions of pounds in lost hours of productivity – around £24bn a year. As the chilly economy continues, the workplace is hotting up.

But what can be done about it? Training your people to manage conflict is, unsurprisingly, the best option. Ensuring they have all the tools they need will not only minimise the effects of negative conflict, it will also help them extract positive outcomes wherever conflict does occur. Our research demonstrated this. Where training takes place, conflict yields positive results – Brazil was the country in our study that saw the most conflict training, and was where employees were most likely to see positive results from workplace conflict.

Any training in workplace conflict needs to be tailored for the individual, organisational context or team issue being addressed, but a few very simple general principles apply.

Clarity beats conflict

Disagreements thrive where there is ambiguity, and ambiguity is endemic in the world of work. In the absence of information, people make false assumptions, with neither party being aware of the other’s perspective. Further, nothing is static in the workplace – things are redefined and evolve constantly, so continually communicating changes needs to stay top of mind for managers. Role definitions and boundaries are good examples of this.

To provide clarity, encourage the leaders in your organisation to share the thinking behind decisions where possible. By sharing rationale and ensuring consistency, ambiguity becomes less destructive. Set clear expectations so everyone knows where they stand. This way, conflict arising from being inadvertently at crossed-purposes can be averted.

Seize the opportunity

Every conflict provides an opportunity for positive progress, but if your leaders don’t recognise this potential then it will never become a reality. Anyone hoping to use conflict as a catalyst for constructive change needs to give their managers the skills to navigate and turn it wherever possible.

That means putting in the work to develop a balanced picture of the differences in question before they become entrenched. Being equipped to walk confidently ‘through the fire’ of tough conversations to the benefits on the other side is also crucial, requiring basic skills, such as giving feedback for improvement.

Don't do nothing

This is probably the most common pitfall for any organisation. It’s easy to think that ignoring conflict will help you reach your objectives quicker. This can take many forms, such as perpetually postponing meetings in the hope that circumstances change.

The reality is that organisations in which managers try to keep a lid on differences are usually rife with undercurrents of unproductive conflict. At the very least, leaders need to learn to be comfortable with dissenting voices and differences of opinion, and sometimes, be content just to listen to – rather than try and defend, or solve – the issues voiced.

Invest energy when times are tough

In the current economic climate this is key. When the pressure is on for an organisation to perform, and resources are tight, stress levels inevitably rise - and nothing beats stress as a catalyst for conflict.

This is when it is vital to invest energy in conflict management. Look closely at how people are rewarded and recognised. Ensure decisions are transparent and that everyone has the opportunity to air their opinions. Aim for the right mix of formal and informal communications and task your managers with building relationships with all their people – managing by walking around was never more important.

Spending time in this way can be difficult and could seem like a distraction from getting the job done. However, if you don’t invest the energy, conflict will almost certainly obstruct you reaching your goals.

Make everyone accountable

Managers play a critical role in resolving conflict, but the buck should not stop with them. Responsibility for resolving any conflict must lie with everyone or staff will ‘learn helplessness’. Employees will never mature into well-rounded managers if they don’t own accountability – and in the short term, the conflict could drag on, sapping morale.

Of course, not knowing how to handle it can stand obstruct the best intentions. Staff need to be taught skills to identify and manage conflict through peer support and manager coaching, and the leader must model the right behaviour themselves. Managers need to learn to guide their people through the minefield without having to test it out with their own footsteps.

Watch out for the tipping points

The Pareto Principle applies in workplace conflict as anywhere else. Most negative conflict will usually stem from quite a small number of issues before it grows into a conspicuous problem. Managers need to be in tune with the crunch points where those small issues gather pace and scale.

This means seeing things from the perspective of your people – what are the emotive issues for them, including those around your own behaviour? Only by taking your own ego out of the equation and seeking to understand each individual’s needs can you recognise the root issues and address them before they grow.

The path to positive conflict

These principles of conflict management are, of course, not exhaustive. Pre-empting unnecessary conflict and generating positive outcomes from unavoidable conflict deserves management thought and ingenuity.

The biggest step is the first one. It is vital to recognise conflict as something that needs management investment and expertise. Engaging in this will help your organisation deploy strategies to equip you for the tough times ahead.

Robert McHenry is the CEO of business psychology firm OPP


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