The very word ‘conflict’ can make many of us flinch.

Conflict can be confronting for most of us, particularly in the workplace. However, most of us will experience workplace conflict at some point in our lives.

Conflict in the workplace has been described as “a pervasive organisational problem that affects employees’ work and interactions”. It may occur between two people or a number of people.

What causes workplace conflict?

Workplace conflict can be caused by a number of things. Recent research into in New Zealand found the most common cause of conflict was over differences of opinion on how to complete a task (21 per cent), followed by procedures and policies not being followed (17 per cent). Other causes included working conditions and hours, treatment of staff (including personality clashes), work performance and salaries.

Effects of workplace conflict

Conflict in the workplace can have enormous repercussions. It can lead to loss of productivity, barriers between co-workers, loss of co-operation and collaboration and the stifling of creativity and problem-solving. High levels of tension can make the workplace extremely uncomfortable, leading to stress and even depression. Sometimes it can lead to staff leaving.

The research in New Zealand found the most common reactions to conflict at work were anger (83 per cent), followed by stress (57 per cent).

Productivity also suffered with 46 per cent of workers losing focus, 37 per cent avoiding communication with the other party, and 33 per cent experiencing reduced motivation. As a result, deadlines were missed, confidence decreased and mistakes increased. Staff took more time off work and ended up leaving the workplace either by choice or through dismissal.

Why we avoid conflict

Given the insights above, is it any wonder most of us choose to avoid workplace conflict. Instead of addressing the issues at hand, we try to side-step around them, or play the ‘nice person’ and ‘go with the flow’, even if we are unhappy.

But why are we so opposed to conflict?

Research has suggested that conflict avoidance may have contrasting motivations. A study focusing on Chinese workplaces showed that in the East, conflict avoidance was “culturally valued and useful” in societies where relationships are highly valued. This suggests that conflict avoidance is motivated by supporting relationships and the goals of others. However, in the West, conflict avoidance is motivated by more selfish reasons.

Some of the reasons we avoid workplace conflict may include:

  1. Believing that conflict is ‘bad’. Unfortunately many of us as children experienced conflict as fighting resulting in physical, psychological and emotional harm. This was bad behavior in response to conflict- conflict is simply a difference in views.
  2. Fear of being seen as a ‘trouble-maker’ or uncooperative
  3. Lack of confidence and needing to be ‘liked’ at work
  4. Believing it is impossible to change other people’s points of view
  5. Lack of skills in dealing with conflict
  6. Fear that colleagues or manager will not support you
  7. Fear of retaliation and retribution- you will lose your job!
  8. A previous bad experience with conflict
  9. Fear that a disagreement will damage relationships between you and your work colleagues.

While it may seem that avoiding conflict is the better choice, you may actually be adding to the situation.

Avoiding conflict merely escalates the situation. Issues become bigger, resentment grows and people begin to disengage from their jobs and each other. In short, nothing gets resolved.

By avoiding conflict, you create relationships that are neither genuine or constructive, which means you are less likely to solve issues. Being afraid to speak up means you are less likely to get what you need or want. As a result, you may begin to feel angry or resentful and start to believe you are a victim. Your health and self-esteem may also suffer.

Change your perception of conflict

As uncomfortable as it is, workplace conflict can be beneficial. The trick is to manage it effectively and constructively.

Instead of looking at conflict as something ‘bad’ and something personal, try to see it as a process to ensure better outcomes for everyone, including yourself and the organisation.

When managed correctly, workplace conflict can:

  • Lead to healthy debate and argument around contentious issues
  • Help develop better processes and systems within the workplace
  • Facilitate positive change
  • Lead to new ideas and innovations
  • Allow workers to see things from a different point of view
  • Improve personal and working relationships
  • Increase productivity.

While it may be difficult, try to take the focus off yourself and your own fears, and concentrate on what the business needs. Rather than ‘fighting to be right’, focus on the bigger picture — how to solve the disagreements amicably and productively. This will probably mean you need to focus on the contentious issues, rather than individual personalities!

Moving forward

Conflict is an inevitable part of working with other people. It comes with the territory of working with individuals with different skills, backgrounds, personalities and cultures. Yet diversity can lead to innovation and growth.

By learning to manage workplace conflict in a constructive way, rather than avoiding or eliminating it, we can actually make it work for us.

Of course, some workplace conflict may be extremely difficult to manage. If this is the case, consider engaging the services of a professional mediator who specialises in conflict in the workplace.

This Blog written by Nerissa Bentley

References

Oluremi Bolanle Ayoko, Workplace conflict and willingness to cooperate: The importance of apology and forgiveness, International Journal of Conflict Management, (2016) Vol. 27 Iss: 2, pp.172-198 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1108/IJCMA-12-2014-0092

New Zealand Management, Workplace conflict erodes productivity Oct 2014, Vol. 61 Issue 3, p8.

New Zealand Management, Workplace conflict erodes productivity Oct 2014, Vol. 61 Issue 3, p8.

Deon Tjosvold, Haifa F. Sun, UNDERSTANDING CONFLICT AVOIDANCE: RELATIONSHIP, MOTIVATIONS, ACTIONS, AND CONSEQUENCES, International Journal of Conflict Management, (2002) Vol. 13 Iss: 2, pp.142-164

Amy Jen Su, Get over your fear of conflict, Harvard Business Review, published 6 June, 2014
https://hbr.org/2014/06/get-over-your-fear-of-conflict/

Victor Lipman, The Upside to Workplace Conflict, Psychology Today, published 16 July, 2013
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mind-the-manager/201307/the-upside-workplace-conflict