Date: 02/06/20 | Duration: 00:27:59

Conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction. At a time when it’s crucial we come together and strengthen our relationships, albeit virtually, inconsequential disagreements or a mishandled conversation can bubble up into unpleasant or even toxic situations. While being able to ‘manage’ conflict is a necessary skill for individuals and the modern workplace, is there a healthy and progressive side of conflict that can be channelled into success?

Join Nigel Cassidy and this months’ guests, Amy Gallo, Contributing Editor at Harvard Business Review; Clive Lewis, OBE and CEO of Globis Mediation Group and Rachel Suff, Senior Employee Relations Adviser at CIPD, to learn about the key causes of negative conflict, strategies for diffusing workplace flare-ups and how we can encourage constructive and progressive workplace conflict.

Nigel Cassidy:  Let’s face it there's a lot to fight about, or for, just now as we all cope with uncertainty and hard financial decisions. So here’s how this month we’re all about the essential skill of defusing and challenging conflict.

Hello I'm Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD podcast. Conflict is inevitable when humans with different perspectives and opinions interact but now at a time when it’s more important than ever to come together and strengthen relationships the new world we find ourselves in could stoke destructive clashes and bullying behaviour; rows maybe just sparked by a wrong word or a mishandled conversation. So how can people professionals flush trouble out, even harness benefits from constructive conflict? 

This podcast was recorded just before lockdown restrictions were imposed in the UK and while no one could have predicted the scale and impact of the pandemic surely the lessons here are critical.

Well okay everyone stop plotting at the water cooler in the corner because we've got a trio here with a lot of experience in spotting, understanding and resolving strife in the workplace and in fact we’ll hear that even fostering showdowns has its place. As someone once said conflict in an organisation is the sound of cracks in the system – a warning that something needs to be fixed. Most of us know, or have known, an otherwise savvy but otherwise weak manager or boss will do anything to avoid tackling the root cause of conflict, a strategy which usually makes things far worse as time goes by. So let’s get some top tips. Amy Gallo is a Contributing Editor at Harvard Business Review, author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict, she delivers evidence-based ideas on how to improve working relationships. I can't wait to see how she handles any hostile questions! Hello.

Amy Gallo: Nice to be here.

NC: Clive Lewis, OBE is Chief Executive of Globis Mediation Group, a business psychologist and author and flying commercial mediator, six years a non-executive director in the NHS and now on the University of the West of England Board. Hello.

Clive Lewis: Hello

NC: But first to set the scene Rachel Suff, Senior Employee Relations Adviser for the CIPD. She's a Masters in Human Resource Management and has led a string of policy and research studies and health and wellbeing at work. Hello.

Rachel Suff: Hello.

NC: Now anything I suppose Rachel can start a simmering office war, power struggles, ego, somebody else’s laziness, pay gaps, deadlines, what does the research tell us are the most common causes of conflict?

RS: Well yes we did publish recent research at the CIPD on managing conflict at work and what really came through strongly was the biggest cause is a kind of catchall term really which was differences in personalities and working styles. So obviously that can cover a multitude of different human interactions. So I think we do need to dig a bit deeper to see what really are those underlying causes of conflict. The kind of behaviours that cause conflict, by far the greatest kind of behaviour was lack of respect. So perception I think plays a part as well in terms of what we regard as conflict, whether it’s positive, negative.

NC: Now Clive Lewis you see all this at first hand and often get flown in to try and sort it out, talk if you would a little bit about what the sort of things we’ve heard about mean for an organisation?

CL: So let’s pick upon a couple of the aspects that Rachel has mentioned. I would certainly agree that the issue of personality fallouts, and I would refer to it as working with your psychological opposite, so an obvious example would be someone who’s an introvert working with someone who’s extroverted, there are differences and those differences can mean that either the work relationship is complementary but often it means that it’s the trigger for conflict. So for example the person who’s more extroverted might want the introverted person to get to the point quicker, might want an idea to be moved straight into action rather than waiting and reflecting and when you multiply that over a number of times with thousands of people in an organisation it can create tension.

NC: So this is about what, productivity being lost, creativity?

CL: Yes so specifically what you see is areas around productivity. You see the amount of capacity available in an organisation for work to be conducted that is lowered. You see issues such as sickness and absence increasing. You might also see an impact on things such as customer relationships because people often express to others how they are feeling themselves. So that could be problematic for an organisation if they have someone not dealing with a customer correctly.

NC: Amy Gallo don't these things often build up because, as I hinted at the beginning, managers let things fester, they allow these conflicts to gain traction?

AG: Yeah, unfortunately managers aren’t often given training on how to handle these, what often are small issues around style differences or differences in approach and so they don't know how to address them and in fact they often avoid them. I think Clive and I are probably brought into organisations for very different reasons. It sounds like Clive’s brought in when there's conflict that hasn’t been resolved, I'm often brought in because there's not enough conflict, people are being overly polite or their organisation has, what some people call, artificial harmony, everyone says they get along but actually they don't under the surface or they’re not surfacing new ideas or innovations. So managers really need to be equipped with the skills and the frameworks to both manage difficult conflict, unhealthy conflict, but also to bring out differences of opinion so people are able to surface new ideas, to collaborate, so that you can create an inclusive work environment.

NC: Okay well you’re hinting at a different kind of conflict there, so we’ll get into that in just a minute but before we do Rachel Suff just say a little bit more about why people managers do allow all this stuff to go on. Is it perhaps because they don't feel in their own minds that their own management will back them in actually resolving the deeper seated problems that are making people fight?

RS: That’s a really good question, I'm glad Amy brought up the question of managers because what our research found is that line managers are really at the centre stage of conflict, often being a cause of it themselves. When we asked employees in a survey who did you have the most difficult relationship, who was the conflict with and the bullying and harassment, if that happened? They said their manager. And when they reported a conflict to their manager they said their manager was just as likely to make it worse as better, the situation. So I think this raises a whole number of questions. Like you say Amy managers often aren’t trained, why aren’t they trained? I think organisations often don't appreciate that conflict happens. They don't have strategies to deal with it, strategically. But also they’re not training line managers in people management generally, let alone specifically to manage conflict. So where they do train managers they’re much better at handling conflict. We’ve got the evidence around that. And managers shy away quite often from personal issues. They find it a really difficult part of their job.

CL: Yes I would agree with that. As Rachel’s speaking I'm just thinking of an experience that I've recently been helping an organisation with where a line manager was having an appraisal conversation with a person who he'd only recently taken over managing, just a year or so in.

NC: I've got a feeling of dread already.

CL: And for the previous ten years this person was managed by someone else and had achieved an appraisal rating of 4, which is good on a 5 point scale, but the new manager gave an appraisal rating of 2, without much of a context about why that was. But the difficulty was how he handled the conversation when his colleague said that he was going to raise a complaint because he couldn’t understand how, in the short space of time, his performance had dropped so badly and so significantly. But the line manager’s response was telling his direct report that his life wouldn’t be worth living if he decided to raise a complaint.

AG: Wow!

NC: So Amy what would you do in that situation?

AG: Oh boy! I mean you have to have sympathy on both sides there because that employee for years thought they were doing incredibly well and to all of a sudden have a 2 when you've had 4 for that many years is shocking and of course you want to raise a complaint. And you have sympathy for the manager whose job it is to give direct and honest feedback and that employer was not getting it. It sounds like neither of them quite handled the situation well without actually appreciating the other person’s perspective. And I think that's one of the key things that when dealing with conflict is really trying to understand where is the other person coming from. We so quickly assume the person is being unreasonable or is out to get us or even has a completely different working style than we do, rather than focusing on what we have in common, whether that's a shared goal or even a common style.

NC: And that case study you talked about Clive what actually happened in the end between the manager and the worker?

CL: Yes well disappointingly the direct report left the organisation, in fact I was asked to facilitate that exit transition for him on the basis that he had lost trust in his line manager. But even more interestingly I was back in touch with the organisation about a year later and I asked the HR professional that I was working with what had happened to the line manager and about six months after that incident the line manager also left, having had just under 30 years of service, was highly regarded, highly respected, but the story of what had allegedly happened left such a bad taste in the mouth of the senior managers of organisation he left two years before he was due to retire.

AG: That's such an interesting story because one of the things I think about with conflict is there's often this emotional shrapnel that gets left in the wake of a conflict. So even if the conflict is just between you and me Clive it’s very likely that Nigel and Rachel will suffer as a result of it. And there's no doubt that there are many, many people effected by what was an uncomfortable situation for two people. All the more reason we need to handle these conflicts in very thoughtful and careful ways.

NC: So Rachel good practice how do you start to lift a situation like that?

RS: Well I think performance management is such a flashpoint often for conflict. Some of it is around perception as well, somebody’s feedback may not come across as positive but I think again managers just aren’t trained enough to go about their role in giving feedback in situations like that in a positive way. There's a problem with performance management as a process and then there is the issue of how it can cause conflict and how to give feedback and have a relationship that's ongoing where you can have conversations, not just a one-off meeting where you give a rating because I think that's how it is seen quite often, how it’s developed in organisations, rather than having that relationship where you can just have ongoing dialogue about performance.

CL: Yes I agree and one of the issues that comes up time and time again in situations I'm asked to help with is the sort of trust. And I often spend time breaking that down because trust essentially is about character and competence and to refer back to the example I gave a few moments ago the direct report decided that he could not continue to work for his line manager who would not accept that he had uttered those words, and unfortunately decided to leave the organisation because of a lack of trust in his line manager. But on the topic of having a difficult conversation I just want to say something on this because I agree that it’s a big issue for line managers, however what I often find is that there are three things to think about in terms of having the conversation and in one of my books on having a difficult conversation I talk about the concept of being a tackler or a dodger. So a tackler is someone who would grapple with this situation, get involved and have the discussion. Of course a dodger would put it off and not have it. But there's a third aspect which is a reckless tackler. And this is someone who will jump in with both feet first, not think it through, do they have the evidence, do they have the facts, and in doing so they can do far more harm than good. 

AG: Yeah in my book I talk about similar, seeker versus avoider, which is similar to tackler and dodger and I recently was doing an event where someone asked a question where does emotion play into seeker versus avoider? And I think you can be an avoider and be an emotional avoider or you can be a seeker and be an emotional seeker, which is similar to this reckless tackler.

CL: Yes.

AG: And the damage done when you’re not making conscientious, thoughtful decisions about how to respond in these situations is grave, people leave jobs, people issue threats to each other. I've seen it blow up in people’s faces quite often.

NC: So it seems to me Rachel that solving some of these problems involves quite a bit of analysis before you jump in and that has to be done perhaps by somebody who is not one of the parties, and the trouble is organisations don't often have room for that. The senior management will say, ‘Look you sort this out.’

RS: Yeah I think it depends on the nature of the conflict, how low level it is. You would hope where there is an issue of conflict, whatever the reason, in a team where the line manager is able to spot that and tackle it head on, if we’re going to use that kind of language, which I think is helpful because it means doing it in a sensitive way. So I think the line manager needs skills to do that because I think the key lesson if you’re a manager, from the conversation so far, is the conflict isn't going to go away, or very rarely does it go away, it’s only likely to fester. So I think for a manager to act as a, I won't say, mediator because that suggests a whole other level of skillset but as a facilitator and have a conversation each. Try and get to the underlying cause of the conflict because sometimes the issue over which something erupts or festers isn't necessarily the real issue that's going on underneath the surface. So really a manager needs to have an awareness and be alert to any kind of underlying tensions in their team. They need to know their team so they’re able to have that one to one conversation with each and hopefully bring the two together because most people at that point do want a resolution, they don't want to leave the organisation. So nipping things in the bud before they escalate if that doesn’t work then we are fully supportive of all the kind of benefits that having an independent third party can bring to a situation.

AG: Managers also need to be careful that they don't step in to solve conflicts that can be solved between two people because I think one of the risks conflicts always get escalated to the next person higher up on the ladder, people don't learn to solve their own problems. So I think you say this in the report you want conflict to be solved at the lowest level possible without having to escalate it if you don't have to. Of course the line manager does have to step in occasionally.

NC: So Clive how do you actually get people to go back to a tricky dispute and solve it for themselves?

CL: Equipping them with the skills to do so because it isn't just line managers that should be equipped with the skills of having difficult conversations, it’s something that should be in place from the ground up and most people run scared. Going back to Amy’s point about emotions, they take over and as a result they take flight. But at the very basic level equipping colleagues with the skills that they need to be able to sit down and have a conversation, in one aspect it’s talked about, in fact in the US, Amy, it’s talked about as a coffee conversation, sitting down with each other in an informal setting and being able to eyeball each other and talk about some of those difficulties might mean that the tension deescalates quicker than being in a much more formal environment.

NC: Now Amy you've hinted at this already when I got the notes for this podcast I was surprised by the phrase ‘negative conflict’ you know like there could possibly be positive conflict. And then I came across this phrase ‘smart fights’, the idea that having an issue out might actually be a force for good.

AG: Yeah I mean there are lots of positive benefits to conflict if it’s harnessed in the right way and if it’s handled productively and professionally. The example that Clive gave earlier certainly is not an example of that but there are tensions that as a manager you want to bring out in a team. Let’s say you have a team member who cares immensely about speed, about getting things done really quickly, that person might sacrifice quality in the effort to get things done quickly, so you might want to partner them with someone who cares a lot about quality. That of course is going to create natural tension, you want those people to disagree, you want them to hash it out so you get a better work product as a result. We also know if conflict’s handled well that it creates stronger relationships between employees. If they’re able to disagree and then get to the other side it sets a precedent that it’s okay to have a difference of opinion here and we can come through it okay. It’s also the foundation for an inclusive work environment. If you spend tons of time, energy, money, trying to bring in people from different backgrounds and different perspectives and then you tell them, ‘By the way we don't disagree here,’ you've lost any of the value from having a diverse workforce. So you really have to make sure that people feel comfortable expressing their opinions, having disagreements, having even fights that they can get past and move on, as long as they’re healthy.

NC: Rachel I can see some dangers in this idea of setting up a smart fight between people, somebody’s going to lose and we can all think of time wasted trying to persuade somebody that they're not going about the job the best way, so there must be dangers in this approach surely?

RS: Well I think we’re taught to have a perception in our culture that conflict is, by its nature, negative, so I think it’s really interesting to hear Amy talk about it in a different way because I think we all run a bit scared of conflict. And I think organisations as well their cultures tend to be set up in that way and not necessarily making the most of their diverse workforce. You know we’re all human, we all come with such a different mix of backgrounds, perspectives, ideas, so it is setting the kind of working environment. And senior leaders and so on have got a responsibility here as well because you have to feel safe to disagree in an organisation and not be afraid and sometimes agree to disagree but you need the environment where you feel you can do that. So leaders and managers they do tend to set the tone where people feel that they can discuss things openly, safely.

NC: I've always found it’s quite useful to be a bit Californian with people, if you can tell they don't like something you can say, ‘Oh you don't seem to like that idea?’ or ‘I sense some anger here.’ Sometimes we think things about what people do or say but we don't act on them.

CL: Yeah possibly and I think that Rachel mentioned senior people and the thought that comes to my mind as she mentioned that is that the smart fights which I’d often referred to as constructive controversy…

AG: I like that.

CL: …as a term the academics often use is this ability to have something out but it might lead towards productive conversations. But my point is that it’s not just at the lower levels in an organisation, often this becomes an issue for boards. You often find that those who are at a board level in an organisation are not backward in coming forward and you might have that as an environment.

NC: They think they’re paid to be a contrarian.

CL: But not shying away from having those boardroom conversations that are often necessary to think about maybe do we need to diversify, do we need to go in a different direction etc.

NC: So if we’re agreed that a bit of that tension is good for an organisation how do you reengineer your workplace to get issues in the open?

RS: Well I think it does come down to that big question about how do you create the right kind of culture? And we talked about senior leaders already and I think they do have a defining influence on what kind of behaviour’s followed, what’s acceptable, what isn't. They are going to set the tone and managers will follow them as well and employees are going to follow their lead really. So culture is every little interaction and we can all make a difference. So we can all try and be ourselves, put across our point of view, be very respectful and be professional still even if you do disagree. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. But I really do think the onus is on the organisation and leaders in particular to really think about what culture, how they’re going to handle conflict and how they're going to embed that across the organisation.

AG: And I think Rachel what the culture needs is an element of psychological safety, you mentioned safety earlier and this term psychological safety Amy Edmundson from Harvard Business School coined this phrase to describe the feeling that you can say what you believe without fear of retribution, even if that's contrary to what other people believe. That is not an easy culture to create in your organisation always but it does start with senior leaders, as you said Rachel, and I think really what you want to convey is we’re not infallible, we’re in a process of constantly learning, of course we have to execute, of course we have to reach our targets and goals but we will learn in the process and part of learning is making mistakes. And not being driven by ego is probably one of the most important things a senior leader can do, because if you show we are able to put our egos down here people are going to be much more willing to speak up even if they’re not 100% sure about what they're saying.

NC: I can imagine Clive when you’re being flown into an organisation to sort something out people will say, ‘Well it’s all right for you to be called in to sort out conflicts but this is really about I can't meet my deadlines, my targets are unrealistic, there's all this stress, they don't pay me enough.’ And those are things that can't be resolved by us all sitting round and having a constructive argument?

CL: Well I would disagree with you because often the reason why…

NC: I’ll see you outside!.

CL: …I and my colleagues may get a call is because the organisation hasn’t been able to create the environment for the conversation to take place. So often what I might provide, or someone who’s in the same industry as myself would provide, is this concept of safety, being able to have a conversation without fear of retribution, to go back to a term that Amy has used. And often what might come out of those are some of the practical elements that you mentioned and being able to try and figure out a way to try and work through them, even if they can't be solved straightaway, someone might not be able to get the 5% or 10% increase that they wanted on their salary. However there might be something about additional training opportunities etc. that can be part of the conversation.

AG: Nigel you mentioned risks earlier what are the risks to smart fights? And I think this is one of them which is that if you don't have this element of safety people will fear retribution or they’ll fear getting in trouble for raising a dissenting opinion and sometimes they will be rightly afraid because I have seen in organisations, I'm sure Clive and Rachel have too, that people who are saying things that are unpopular tend to be seen as outcasts, their careers tend to stall. So this is certainly one of the risks if you encourage people to fight in an organisation where dissented opinions aren’t respected you're putting people at risk of ruining their careers.

NC: And I suppose too Rachel it’s about knowing your people. If you have a large organisation and people get upset about stuff which causes conflict you may not even know what it is they’re upset about.

RS: That's true and I think as well as part of creating that environment it means as an organisation sending a really clear message to create that safe work environment that where behaviour and conflict is negative, where it really has crossed that line and it’s inappropriate and it’s causing distress and it’s harmful, that you will take that seriously. So it’s really understanding where that line lies and making sure that the message is out there that you will deal quickly, robustly, and listen to people’s concerns effectively.

NC: So that's your top tip really?

RS: I think it is yes.

NC: And perhaps one to finish from Clive and Amy.

CL: Well one of the themes that I’m hearing about more and more in organisations is almost turning this on its head in terms of thinking about conflicts as being something to avoid and what are some of the principles around behaviour that we should be working towards, and one of the biggest things for me that I'm seeing at the moment is this concept of civility in the workplace, how we treat others, doing unto others as you would like to be done by or done to yourself, if you like and just being respectful. And if you’re able to move towards a culture that is much more about respect for others and politeness a lot of these issues that we are seeing and experiencing about conflict are likely to fall away over time.

NC: Amy Gallo.

AG: I think my top tip for people, whether you’re a senior leader or whether you're an individual who’s involved in a conflict is to think about what is your goal, what is it you actually want to achieve? I think sometimes we get our egos involved, we get so focused on being right or feeling like we’ve been wronged, that we need to reverse that, that we forget what our ultimate goal is.

NC: So getting through the day isn't an adequate answer?

AG: Well maybe it is but what is it you actually want to achieve, either in your career in the organisation and what shared goal do you have with your colleagues that you can focus on to get through some of these more difficult conflicts?

NC: Well so what have we learnt? Well conflict’s part and parcel of making progress and achieving the goals of your organisation. It shouldn’t be feared, we've certainly learnt that. Our trio say embrace it as an opportunity and of course you can draw on the latest resources from the CIPD and from Amy and Clive’s books and elsewhere to work all this through. What’s that old joke, don't let the sun go down on a quarrel stay up and fight. So don't ignore conflict embrace it, it’s your job to do so. 

Let me just thank Clive Lewis, Amy Gallo and Rachel Suff, from us, from me Nigel Cassidy and all of us here at the CIPD it’s goodbye. 

Topic pages

Dispute resolution

Explore our resources on the nature of conflict and approaches to managing conflict in the workplace

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