Workplace Conflict is Inevitable: Managing Outcomes– Constructive vs. Destructive; Costs vs. Benefits; Clash vs. Collaboration…

Conflict and disagreement offer wonderful opportunities to learn and grow. As long as, you respect others’ differences and things don’t get personal, and you question the idea and not the person, then there will be room for discovery and movement toward the best solution. ~Matthew Gilbert

Workplace Conflict. Most of us are surrounded by conflict in some form or another every day. Some of this conflict involves us directly, while some we may simply observe. But all of it affects us in some way, just as it affects the organizations we belong to.

Conflict at work is inevitable and, the best way you can deal with it, is learn how to manage it. Robert Ramsey, a contributing editor at ‘Supervision Magazine’, reports that a survey of 150 executives found that they spend an average of about 18% of their work time ‘acting as a peacekeeper, referee, and mediator’ for employees engaged in conflict.

Other studies estimate that figure to be as high as 30%. That means managers are spending between nine and fifteen weeks a year dealing with conflict in the workplace. A recent study by ‘Integra Realty Resources’ reported that 42% of the workers surveyed have witnessed yelling or other verbal abuse at work, and 29% of those surveyed admit to having yelled at coworkers themselves. What are the causes of workplace conflict?

An uncertain economy, threats of downsizing, competition for promotion, misplaced loyalties, finger-pointing over mistakes, and job-related stress are all contributors to workplace conflict. The changing landscape in the modern workplace has brought with it new challenges for keeping peace. Dictionaries and management texts offer a range of synonyms for Conflict: (1) to clash, disagree, (2) a battle or struggle, (3) antagonism or opposition, (4) incompatibility or interference, and (5) a mental struggle. Social scientists who study conflict often take a more detailed approach to the subject.

Scientific literature offers, among others, this descriptions: Conflict is a situation in which interdependent people express (manifest or latent) differences in satisfying their individual needs and interests, and they experience interference from each other in accomplishing these goals.

In the article “The Nature of Conflict” by Cengage Learning writes: Perhaps the most universal reason for workplace conflict is simply that people are different. When people work together, it is inevitable that they will sometimes disagree over things like goals, the way to achieve goals, or whether or not one party is capable of achieving a goal, and the like. No doubt, we all know the consequences when managers do a poor job of dealing with conflicts.

When employees clash, it’s tempting to wait it out and hope the problem will go away. After all, most managers don’t like to interfere in their employees’ lives and many feel ill-equipped to cope with employee conflict.  Furthermore, sometimes a conflict actually will go away on its own, adding to the appeal of the ‘do nothing’ approach. In one study of how employees respond to conflict at work, more than 86% of those surveyed said that they discuss it with a coworker.

Conversations of this sort can quickly spread conflict through an organization, disrupt harmony and morale in the workplace, and impede work performance. Daniel Dana, author of Conflict Resolution, estimates that 65% of performance problems result from conflicts between employees, which represents a huge expense for organizations. Dana says,Unmanaged employee conflict is perhaps the largest reducible cost in organizations today—and probably the least recognized.”

The focus on preventing conflict has given way to the notion that conflict can be constructive, and there is an optimal level of conflict in an organization that is better than no conflict at all.  Constructive conflicts, also known as cognitive conflicts, or substantive conflicts, are characterized by arguments about facts, information, ideas, or plans. The benefits of optimal levels of constructive conflict include better decisions and innovative approaches to solving problems.

The challenge is to manage the conflict so that it stays at an optimal level and is not handled in a dysfunctional way.  Healthy relationships will experience conflict. The difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships is not whether conflict exists but how conflict is handled. Furthermore, not all conflicts can, or should, be resolved. In some cases, managing a conflict effectively is really the best that you can do.

In the article “The Two Sides of Conflict” by Susan Gerke writes: There is the growing realization that teams can actually excel in the presence of certain types of conflict.  If your teams are arguing over things such as the best way to go about cost cutting, how to counter a formidable competitor or how to make the work force more productive, then they will probably find a terrific solution. The conflict is a difference of opinion on the right course of action which can foster productive discussion.

This is called a ‘task led conflict’. Task led conflicts can have a positive impact on team output and need not be shunned.  If, on the other hand, team members display open dislike for each other and are having a ‘war of words’ over matters such as why certain information was not shared or why a certain tone of voice was used, then this is not good news.

This type of conflict is a relationship conflict. Conflict of this nature is predictably bad for business. Intervention becomes a necessity to restore the team’s equilibrium and performance levels.  Experts in the field of psychology world-over are reaching one profound conclusion on the issue of performance and conflict. The complexity of the task and the resultant conflict within the team during the course of performing that task can have a combined positive bearing on the team’s performance.

However, the conflict has to be task led and has to evolve from the complexity of the task. Here’s what well-known researcher Professor Stephen Wood writes about conflict in teams: Task conflict has generally been found to have a positive effect on task performance, provided that the level of conflict is appropriate to the complexity and uncertainty of the team’s work.

For example, a strategic management team may need high levels of disagreement to facilitate the critical evaluation of decisions; conversely a production team following routine procedures may find that even a relatively low-level of disagreement interferes with their work’.

In the article “Fundamentals of Conflict for Business Organizations” by Lawrence Kahn writes:  Every conflict holds the opportunity for creating improved processes and developing innovative procedures. We are all familiar with the negative attributes of conflict; e.g., avoidance, immobility, violence, inertia, and maintenance of the status quo. However, conflict has a positive side brimming with opportunities. Conflict has the ability to foster creativity, higher thinking, better listening skills, and change.

It’s inevitable that we will run into conflict. How we can choose to deal with it, in a negative or positive manner, is key to long-term growth and success.  Successful organizations generally deal with conflict in a positive, proactive manner. Understanding the fundamental causes of conflict, makes it significantly easier to find creative solutions.  Too often the response to conflict is to deal with the symptoms.

We see the strife between individuals or departments, but fail to focus on the underlying dilemma. As a result, we attack the problem by seeking ways to make the participants work together nicely, while leaving the core issue unresolved. These solutions become patches that often don’t hold. Locating the core conflict helps management begin looking for resolutions that work.

When the spotlight is put on the core issue, opportunities become apparent. Management can concentrate on developing innovative structural and procedural changes that encourage communications and a broad corporate focus…

In the article “The Cost of Conflict in the Workplace” by James A. Cram and Richard K. MacWilliams write:  Although conflict is a normal part of life, learning how to resolve conflict effectively can be a daunting task, particularly in the workplace. Addressing conflict should be viewed as an important element in achieving organizational effectiveness and enhancing productivity.

Many organizations, however, suffer chronic patterns of unresolved conflict that are costly and often symptomatic of serious organizational dysfunction. In fact, some experts believe that unresolved conflict represents the largest reducible cost in many businesses, yet it remains largely unrecognized. Without a clear picture of the real costs associated with conflict, the priority for developing healthy resolution strategies is likely to remain low. 

Unresolved conflict can create serious and quite varied consequences. For example, employee conflicts often create project delays that can result in missed market opportunities. Customer relations can be damaged when conflict results in confused communication or inconsistent information.

The development of effective work groups and teams can fail as a consequence of disputes between members. Companies with chronic conflict often find it difficult to attract and keep good people…

Conflict happens on the job, between groups, within families, and right in the middle of our most personal relationships. The challenges of dealing with differences have rarely been greater. While scholars study conflict management in a variety of contexts (intimacy, work, education, intercultural, organizational, war and peace…), the basic elements or variables of conflict remain stable across contexts.

On the job, “conflict is a stubborn fact of organizational life” says Kolb and Putnam.  One study surveyed workers and found that almost 85% reported conflicts at work. And with an increasing awareness of cultural diversity and gender equity issues, it is imperative that we become familiar with issues surrounding promotions and harassment.

Ongoing, unresolved workplace conflict also has negative impacts that reach far beyond the principal parties. Ignoring workplace conflict sets destructive forces in motion that decrease productivity, spread the conflict to others, and lead to lessened morale and productivity; on the other hand, constructive conflict can stimulate the organizations to reach the higher-levels of performance, productivity…

“While substantive conflict, if handled correctly, can be very productive, whereas, personalized conflict is almost never a good thing. There are several reasons: Personalized conflict is fueled primarily by emotion; usually anger, frustration, and perceptions about someone else’s personality, character, or motives.” ~ Robert Bacal