Five things we know about workplace conflict but ignore
Jonny Gifford and Richard Saundry underscore key insights that people professionals must take into account when approaching conflict management
The CIPD’s report Managing conflict in the modern workplace draws attention to the critical issue of bullying and harassment in UK workplaces, and the devastating impact unfair treatment can have on individuals and organisations. In January, we awarded the 2021 Ian Beardwell prize for applied research to a study into the role HR practitioners play in resolving workplace conflict. In this article, Jonny Gifford of the CIPD and the study’s lead author, Professor Richard Saundry, consider critical elements of conflict management that can be hard to take on board.
1. Conflict management is led by people managers
We generally think of conflict management as resolving inter-personal conflict and mitigating the effects when it arises. But it also involves preventing conflict in the first place, for example, through building social cohesion in teams. People managers play a central role in preventing and resolving conflict. Good managers can handle team conflicts healthily. They should be able to dip into some of the communication and negotiation skills used in mediation. A decade or two ago, business coaching was the preserve of external consultants, but now it’s common to see coaching as a core people management competence. We need to make the same shift in how we regard mediation skills: they should be considered a core people management skill.
2. Power dynamics in conflict are unavoidable
CIPD research has uncovered a clear power dynamic in workplace conflict. We are more likely to report conflict with our managers than other people we work with and more likely to experience serious consequences from that conflict and feel that it remains unresolved. One of the main benefits of mediation is that it starts to correct this imbalance of power. It acts as a leveller of hierarchy, legitimising more junior parties’ concerns that are often ignored or not voiced at all. This is an important consideration in finding sustainable resolutions. Not only do people experiencing conflict need to feel their voices are properly heard, but outcomes are far more likely to ‘stick’ if the parties themselves develop them.
3. Early resolution is best
We know this, and yet we often brush low-level conflict and festering relationships under the carpet, hoping they go away. Avoiding conflict is a natural response, but there are times we must bite the bullet and address conflict constructively as early as possible. Although these conversations can be unpleasant or nerve-wracking, they don’t have to be difficult. As a senior HR practitioner explained, the key thing is to have the conversation in the first place. The earlier you can do that, the easier it will be. Again we are back to people managers’ ability to deal with conflict. But HR practitioners also play a key role in building the confidence of managers to act early and think creatively – beyond the confines of process and procedure.
4. Conflict management needs holistic solutions
Mediation and other forms of dispute resolution can successfully repair seemingly unworkable relationships, but they are often used in a reactive way, after significant damage has already been done. Instead, employers should aim to strengthen social cohesion throughout their organisations more generally, to make conflict less likely in the first place. It is important to adopt a more systemic and strategic approach, developing management’s capacity to prevent, contain and resolve conflict. In addition to mediation and more conventional processes, this can include:
- management training that focuses on interpersonal people skills
- fostering high-trust relationships between the ‘golden triangle’ of managers, HR practitioners and employee representatives
- developing supportive coaching networks to build managerial ‘conflict confidence’.
5. Structure, process and culture can create and exacerbate conflict
Conflict is an inevitable part of working life. However, it is often created and exacerbated by organisational structures and processes and how they are managed and implemented. Performance targets, resource allocation, lines of management and organisational cultures that are unnecessarily competitive can pit people or teams against each other. This underlines the need for leadership to be more compassionate and inclusive and for conflict management to be a central consideration in organisational strategy. Without this, ad hoc initiatives and innovations will have little impact and, even worse, may seem tokenistic and at odds with the experience of workers and employees.
How do business leaders regard conflict?
It is not easy to convince senior leaders, including those in HR, to treat conflict management as a key strategic issue. Some see any talk of conflict as an admission of failure and dysfunction, while others claim that conflict can be a positive force, enhancing innovation and creativity. This latter view underestimates the damage that can be wrought to the organisation and individuals involved: research shows the costs outweigh any benefits of creative tension or conflict resolution. Instead, a strategic focus on conflict management creates an organisational climate that emphasises staff wellbeing and engagement. It also gives HR practitioners the support to put early and creative resolution of conflict ahead of procedure and compliance and provides managers with the skills they need to foster healthy work relationships.
Richard is hosting a PrOPEL online masterclass Taking a Strategic Approach to the Management of Workplace Conflict on 5 March. Register here.
If your organisation is interested in developing the conflict confidence of its line managers, you can now sign up to participate in a free ESRC-funded trial led by the Universities of Sheffield and Westminster and Acas. This provides an opportunity to boost the skills of your managers while evaluating the impact on engagement and productivity. For further information, contact Richard Saundry at email@example.com.
Professor Richard Saundry
Richard Saundry is Professor of HRM and Employment Relations at Sheffield University Management School
Jonny is Senior Advisor for Organisational Behaviour at the CIPD. His work centres on job quality or 'good work' and on linking research and practice, in particular through evidence reviews, experimental studies and the CIPD Applied Research Conference. He is an Academic Member of the CIPD and a Fellow of CEBMa, the Center for Evidence-Based Management.