Workplace conflict can be destructive, harmful, performance-sapping and costly. It often affects many people beyond the individuals or groups who are in direct conflict with each other
It can be one of the most stressful parts of a manager’s role, drawing time and energy away from the activities around which performance is measured. Against this backdrop, the prospect of having to deal with workplace conflict can be truly daunting for a newly-appointed manager who might be faced with long-standing unresolved conflict, involving one or more of the people for whose performance they find themselves accountable.
Without appropriate and skilful management, dysfunctional conflict can escalate into accusations of bullying or harassment, absences from work and costly workcover claims. The risk to personal and organisational reputation is high. On the other hand, there are situations where workplace conflict can be used productively to help people and groups move out of a period of stagnation or diminished creativity with renewed energy and innovative ideas.
To effectively deal with conflict, managers must understand why and how conflict arises and make sure that their portfolio of managerial tools and techniques includes an array of proactive and remedial approaches to dealing with it.
The origins of conflict
Workplace conflict often manifests as a fundamental disagreement over workplace goals or about how those goals are to be achieved. For example, the sales manager who expects the sales team to secure a steady stream of orders during the quarter is likely to find they are in conflict with the sales team member who has a preference for the adrenalin rush of last minute sales. The operations manager who schedules production for optimal machine utilisation might find themselves in conflict with the sales manager who wants urgent delivery for a special customer order.
Often, managers deal with situations of conflict by trying to control the behaviour they perceive to be a problem. For example the sales manager conducts more frequent performance reviews with the sales team member, setting expectations of a smoother flow of orders. Their higher level of authority means that, at least in the short term, there is a chance that the sales team member will be compliant. In the longer term, if the unsatisfactory conduct persists, formal disciplinary measures may be required.
For enduring resolution of conflict however, managers must look beyond observed behaviour and expressed opinions to seek understanding of the underlying causes. This effort can be rewarded with increased understanding of structural issues contributing to workplace stress; for example inadequately defined roles, responsibilities and accountabilities, or inequitable workload expectations. It can also lead to greater understanding of people’s personal values, temperament and working style preferences.
For example, the project team member who questions project changes may simply be seeking to understand the rationale behind them as a precursor to giving the plan their absolute commitment. On the other hand, the task-oriented project manager might interpret the team member’s curiosity as a challenge to their role or authority. In the absence of attention to these underlying factors, the seeds of workplace conflict may start to germinate.
Whether a workplace conflict is between individuals or between entire departments, a good starting point for managers seeking to deal with the situation is to develop understanding. All too often managers leap into ‘conflict resolution’ or ‘performance management’ mode before they have properly understood not only the position taken by each ‘side’ but also the influencing factors. Well-honed ‘active listening’ and emotional resilience are important skills for fully developing this understanding. Understanding, not only by the manager but by both parties of each others’ position provides a much firmer foundation for conflict resolution than unsubstantiated assertions and statements of opinion.
Managers often turn to sources of internal and external support to help them deal with workplace conflict. Internal human resources (HR) departments can be a valuable source of advice and guidance as can access to external providers. However, managers should be wary about simply ‘handing over’ a situation to an expert in conflict resolution. By avoiding direct involvement in resolving conflict, managers squander opportunities to deepen their understanding of workplace dynamics and lose the chance to gain insights into the factors which support or inhibit optimal workplace performance. Staying involved can strengthen workplace relations and contribute to staff and management skill development.
A notable exception is when managers themselves are directly involved in the conflict. The power imbalance in this situation usually requires proactive involvement of independent support.
Workplace conflict can be helpful and there are situations where judicious ‘conflict stimulation’ is called for. When a project team appears to be engaging in ‘groupthink’ a wise project manager might deliberately introduce a controversial topic with the intention of jolting team members into a more independent mode of thinking. New managers, finding themselves surrounded by ‘yes’ people might intentionally raise an emotive topic and encourage expression of diverse views in order to demonstrate that they value debate for its generative potential. Used wisely and intelligently, conflict can engender innovation by challenging ideas and questioning assumptions.
Implications for management development
Conflict resolution has been shown to be one of the least well developed skills in Australian managers yet the evidence also indicates that about 20% of managers’ time is spent dealing with conflict. Without adequate professional development in techniques which enable the sources of conflict to be properly understood and differences to be worked through constructively, the cost of conflict is much higher in many organisations than it could be.
A first step for managers who want to deal more effectively with conflict is to evaluate their own preferred approach and if necessary invest in the professional development necessary to extend their repertoire. For example, whist a conciliatory approach might work well in some settings, it may be less effective than a more assertive approach in others. Also, it is useful to see conflict not as something to be eliminated or smoothed over but as a potential source of rich learning about the effect of the organisation’s processes and systems on workplace relations and people’s performance at work.
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant, facilitator and management educator, specialising in organisational and leadership development, governance and performance improvement and team dynamics through FourLeaf Consulting (www.fourleaf.com.au).
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