Last reviewed 3 October 2017
Jude Tavanyar looks at why conflict management approaches require versatility and empathy and what this means for organisational leaders.
If you have ever worked in an office where colleagues sitting next to each other are spending time communicating exclusively by email rather than actually starting a spoken conversation face to face, or where two employees regularly take circuitous routes around the office in order to avoid bumping into each other at the coffee machine, then you’ll understand what the impact of unresolved conflict, even on a relatively limited level, can be.
The truth is that almost all of us have, at some stage of our working lives, been affected by conflict at work. According to available studies such as the CIPD’s Conflict Management Survey (2011), workplace conflict is increasing, and those charged with addressing it — team leaders, supervisors, management tiers right up to board level — often feel they do not have the relevant skills or confidence to do so in an appropriate manner. As a result — no surprise here — they do not address it. They ignore the conflict, and hope that “the problem” will somehow go away.
Of course, it very often doesn’t. Unresolved conflict usually gets even worse, causing serious stress and emotional upset over time, resulting in the most extreme situations in staff resignations and retention challenges. However, even an apparently minor conflict that has dragged on over time can impact not only those directly affected, but also their fellow team members and other colleagues, creating the kind of hostile atmosphere in which trust, collaborative working, productivity and creative thinking may be seriously curtailed.
Why do managers so often drag their heels when it comes to conflict management? Partly perhaps because they ignore the fact that conflict is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, offering the possibility of exploring human differences with a focus and depth that may benefit the whole organisation. But mainly because conflict is so often regarded as a frightening subject, reminding us of bullying; aggressive behaviour; a lack of peace and harmony. So the tendency can often be to pretend that it just isn’t happening.
Despite that prevalent “head-in-the-sand” attitude, conflict is extremely common, and costly — when left to fester without adequate attention. In the UK, the estimated cost of unresolved workplace conflict (in a study from the CBI) is £33 million a year, 370 million working days lost to absenteeism, and 20% of leadership time focused on trying to deal with it. And these staggering figures, which have scarcely diminished in years, seem to highlight an important distinction.
In other words — it is not conflict in itself that is the problem, since human beings have always been opinionated, often stubborn creatures who can get caught up in misunderstandings and intolerance of others’ difference from themselves only too easily. It is unresolved conflict that becomes entrenched over time that drains the energy, resources and talent out of businesses of all shapes and sizes, enabling assumptions to become facts, interpretations to replace realities, minor disagreements to become magnified out of proportion, and deeply-held ideas and beliefs to become increasingly fixed without any discussion or possibility of mutual understanding and, therefore, resolution.
What can managers learn from this? Commentators on effective conflict management describe core competencies for employees to acquire and practise.
These include the following.
Excellent communication skills, enabling managers to explore and defuse conflict in its early stages, looking beyond the “stuck” assumptions that so often trigger heated feelings between individuals until they finally are openly aired and discussed. Managers who can listen in depth with sensitivity and without interruption to the conflicting parties’ diverse accounts of the situation, and seek common ground between them so that blame can be avoided and creative solutions can be collaboratively explored, are likely to be extremely effective in preventing minor disagreements from escalating into major disputes.
Emotional intelligence is a fairly broad category, but particularly involves the kind of understanding and intuitive abilities that enable managers to look beyond the obvious, and discern when employees are coping with difficult situations by reading their “non-verbal” as well as their verbal communication. This requires finely-tuned observational skills, and a level of awareness of others, and psychological-mindedness which may take time to acquire, but which begins by seeking to know and acknowledge team members at their best, and at their worst. Managers who know how their staff are likely to behave when they are even mildly under pressure will be quick to pick up the kind of changes in behaviour induced by unacknowledged conflict-generated stress.
Understanding and knowledge of different conflict management styles is also an important attribute on the list. Questionnaires such as Kilmann’s Conflict Management Styles indicate five core ways, or preferences, for managing conflict, including a “win-lose” competitive stance; compromise to find a quick, mutually acceptable solution; accommodating a conflict by giving up one’s own needs in order to please the other (lose-win); collaboration or win-win, in-depth exploration in order to find the best solution for all; and finally complete avoidance — refusing to acknowledge that the conflict is taking place. According to Kilmann, we all have a preference for one or two of these approaches, and no one style is ever likely to be useful in all situations. Versatility to choose the appropriate approach in the given scenario, and awareness of our own preferences and the ability to guess those of others can offer some very useful insights into how the conflict started, how it became “stuck”, and the feelings and reactions of those involved.
Creative problem-solving is, not surprisingly, a competence at the heart of conflict management. Managers who are able to develop a collaborative process with those involved in conflict by (for example) setting up a meeting or meeting/s where they might seek details from both parties in a calm atmosphere where communication is respectful and blame is kept firmly outside the door, and where positive action points can be agreed to an appropriate and clear timeline with check-in points for review along the way, are already half the way to instigating a successful resolution to a dispute.
However, any dispute resolution plan needs empathy on all sides to make it work. Negotiating an agreement and productive route out of conflict requires more than creative collaboration. It requires the empathic ability to draw out, and support, buried feelings from people who have been trying to ignore their anger, sadness or fear in order to cope, and get on with their job. Being able to create an atmosphere where this kind of emotionally-connected, trusting conversation can take place, where people can talk about how they really feel and what they really want, in those instances which require a collaborative and in-depth resolution, is therefore crucial.
This looks like a daunting list, but it need not. These skills can be developed through training and coaching, and of course through determined practice. However, what is most likely to help managers gain expertise and confidence in conflict management is the organisational setting in which they operate. Businesses which can enable trusting, transparent conversations, where feelings can be aired openly, feedback shared in a supportive, non-blaming way, and where organisational values prioritise and support individual wellbeing and collaborative communication are, not surprisingly, likely to be those where small stand-offs are not able to transform themselves into destructive, draining long-term disputes — with all the financial and human fall-out that so very often sadly will entail.
CIPD (2011) Conflict Management Survey
The Globe and Mail, Leadership Lab (2015): The Long-term Costs of Not Resolving Workplace Conflict — Bill Howatt