This February’s leading article in CIPD People Management Magazine focuses on the crucial issue of workplace conflict and how to tackle it. The article shares insights into the latest research by the institution on the issue, and the trends make for interesting reading.

35% of employees who contributed to the research stated that they had experienced some sort of conflict in work over the last 12 months. 47% of those who had experienced it didn’t think that their complaint would be treated seriously if they spoke up and many were concerned for negative repercussions if they did. Furthermore, of those who had spoken up about workplace conflict, only half felt that the conflict had been satisfactorily resolved when they did.

With an increase in pressures and changes outside of the workplace and, with that, a growing sense of instability, a climate is being created in which negative conflict may have a stronger likelihood of occurrence. Demand is higher on people, tolerance is lower and if employers fail to manage workplace conflict in a productive way, there will be poor working relationships amongst colleagues. This in turn leads to higher stress levels, disengagement, employee turnover and detrimental impact on overall performance.

The notion of "VUCA" - Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous - is gaining popularity as a term to cover the various dimensions of this ‘unpredictable’ environment and leaders have new challenges upon them to understand how to adapt and lead in a VUCA world, as well as self-regulate their own emotions with new pressures upon them. To add prominence to the importance of this Remi Malenfant, HR Transformation Manager at Peopledoc, spoke at the 2020 UK HRD Summit citing a ‘Trust Crisis’ as one of the top HR megatrends. In an increasingly uncertain environment, people are turning to their employers as the institution that they hope to be able to place most trust in. This relationship is therefore evermore important. Expectations are perhaps higher on managers and leaders to support people in finding solutions and following through on what they say they’re going to do.

It is helpful to recognise that conflict is something that should be expected as an everyday occurrence, regardless of the backdrop. As Thomas-Kilmann points out “no two individuals have the same expectations or ideas and therefore conflict is a natural part of our interactions.” Conflict is a much broader term than we often realise and, managed in the right way, there are huge benefits to conflict. It presents opportunity. It is through voicing our differences or sharing feedback that we innovate, improve, drive progress and achieve better outcomes. Writing for Forbes, Mike Myatt, author of Hacking Leadership, says “hidden within virtually every conflict is the potential for a tremendous learning opportunity.”

When conflict becomes hostility different behaviours begin to show. Being cut out of meetings, not feeling listened to, role erosion and insubordination are in the mix. It’s essential to prepare both leaders and employees with the right skills and tools for recognising, accepting, responding to and channelling conflict in the right way. The CIPD article, 'why conflict is ruining your workplace - and how to fix it,' provides useful ways for overcoming the ‘artificial harmony’ that Patrick Lencioni describes in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  This includes avoiding suppressing or glossing over difference and instead productively heading off issues. 

We'll all have had our own experiences of workplace conflict.  Some are obvious, others are covert and leave you wondering.  Whatever the circumstances, here’s some of my own ideas to help leaders and colleagues productively manage those inevitable differences that arise:

  • To re-set general behaviour expectations, you can revisit your company values and competencies to better show what you all need and want from each other as colleagues. It may also be useful to share a framework or delegation of authority statement which provides guidance on positive and expected ways of operating within your workplace. Included in this should be guidance on how to approach speaking up and sharing differences of opinion.

  • Recognise that dissatisfaction accumulates – for both employer and employee. Issues will build up to a bigger picture so ensure that you’re talking to your direct report or line manager regularly to ensure issues are not left to fester. Spot signs of discontent and nip them in the bud - changes in communication, increasing absence, changes in behaviour, resignation – these may point to a conflict even when one is not formally raised.

  • Conflict often occurs because of two reasons – mis-communication and our emotional response to it. Take steps to develop both leaders and employees on how to hold constructive conversations in a healthy and productive way (or develop yourself). At Pick Everard we have developed a constructive conversations toolkit to guide our people on how to structure the best conversation possible. Through our ‘People Hub’ platform we’re also providing greater visibility to the learning opportunities we have available for personal development in our Practice.

  • Ensure sounding boards are available – whether this be a HR professional or another employee advocate. Not only are people their own strongest source of feedback but they will also already inherently have an idea of how they would like to tackle an issue. Take a coaching approach (using guided questioning) to help your colleague organise their thinking in how they would like to move forward in resolving a conflict and how best to do it.

  • Take more time to understand your team’s differences. Get to know people, ask them what’s important to them and how they like to work. Accept difference and adapt. There’s a wealth of personality profiling tools available to help support this journey including Myers Briggs, Belbin, Strengthsfinder, Hogan to name but a few. Spending one to one and team time getting to know what makes each other tick can be just as productive if you don’t wish to make the investment right now in personality tools.

  • Think ahead – and reflect back. When you think you have a difficult conversation ahead consider is it worth it? Are there alternative ways to manage the conflict? Consider any repercussions and how to head them off. Similarly take the opportunity to reflect on how you’ve previously approached conflict. How could you adapt to make your style even more effective? What have you learnt? A great coaching exercise to try for this is perceptual positions.