Conflict in the Workplace – can you spot the signs?
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Conflict in the Workplace – can you spot the signs?

As a manager and HR Business Partner, I’ve had to deal with many forms of conflict. For example employees raising a grievance against their manager; or team members just not seeing eye to eye.  The key is being able to identify the signs and be able to resolve the issues promptly.

Spotting the signs

It is easier to spot some signs of conflict than others. Whilst some may be visible such as an argument between colleagues or a meeting between management and trade union representatives that turns into a “stand-off” or even sickness absence levels increase. Not all forms of conflict are as obvious.  Employees might hide their feelings as a way of coping with a problem; while a team might react to pressure by isolating itself from the rest of the business.

So why is conflict an issue?

It is good to have a healthy dose of challenge within teams and organisations, however when this turns into conflict, some damaging effects can result such as:

Behaviour changes. People can begin to make (and accept) derogatory remarks towards each other creating a negative working environment. Consequently social events begin to dwindle.

Motivation levels drop. This could result in less flexibility or organisational agility because fewer people volunteer to take on new tasks and there is little employee input at team meetings or briefings.

A negative working environment and lack of motivation causes unhappiness which may lead to depression or stress. At best, you can hope for Sickness absence to increase, at worst labour turnover can increase as employees look for more positive places to work.

The first three issues have a negative impact on Productivity which in some organisations can be a matter of life or death. The General Medical Council has commented on the recent conflict between the government and junior doctors. They state that ‘Poor morale among doctors could put patients at risk’ Even if you aren’t dealing with patients’ lives, a drop in productivity is definitely an issue that you and your business want to avoid.

So you spot the signs, what now?

As a manager you are more likely to be able to interpret the behaviour of your employees if you have regular channels for open communication. Communication skills and emotional intelligence help here (discussed earlier in our blog series ) as using your skills to listen to the views of your employees at the appropriate time can help you can gauge the best conflict resolution method to use.

Conflict resolution methods

According to Kilmann Diagnostics (2015):

‘No two individuals have exactly the same expectations and desires; conflict is a natural part of our interactions with others.’

Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Handling Model has five different modes for responding to different situations.

In our working lives we are faced with conflict on a daily basis. To defuse the conflict and reach a solution, we must choose the most appropriate conflict management style. For example, HR team members are regularly faced with conflict when facilitating Trade Union meetings. As a key stakeholder, unions do not always agree with policy changes and therefore a compromise must be met. This is known as a ‘lose-lose’ situation as neither party actually achieve 100% of what they want.

Working in a leadership role, you will be a leader of change and organisational development. This involves working across all areas of the business to embed new processes and policies to improve the culture. However, it can be difficult to smoothly transition an entire organisation through change without having to deal with conflict. Therefore it is crucial that we take a collaborative approach to dealing with conflict when it arises. Collaborating with teams across the business encourages effective working practices, allowing room for everybody’s ideas to reach a ‘win-win’ outcome.

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