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Managing conflict at work

Karen Higginbottom

Conflict in the workplace is not something that employees relish and it often places the manager in a difficult position when they have to manage conflict between team members. How can a manager best address conflict between team members? What are the consequences if a manager ignores conflict in their team in terms of morale and employee engagement? Is there ever a workplace situation where conflict can be constructive? Karen Higginbottom investigates

There a high chance that you may have worked in a team that has experienced conflict between its members. David Liddle, founder of a mediation and conflict management organisation has witnessed three types of conflict that can occur within a team. “The team can split down the middle with two opposing camps and this can lead to real friction and polarity between the two groups. Another type of conflict is all the team members against one member of staff and the third type of conflict is one where everybody is in conflict with each other. In the latter type of conflict, it can be difficult to identify a particular focus within the team members that cause conflict and everybody is demoralised.”

Dr Jonathan Lord, lecturer in human resources management at Salford Business School cited a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) study that identified three types of conflict: relationship conflict; task conflict and process conflict. “Relationship conflict is about the personal relationships between people within a team or a manager and process conflict is around the disagreement of a completion of a task. Task conflict is around the viewpoints about the task.”  

Amanda Peticca-Harris, assistant professor, people, organisations and society department at Grenoble Ecole de Management commented that conflict can arise in multiple ways in a team. “It can be connected to a project where the team members interpret it in with different perspectives or down to cross-cultural differences in terms of how work is organised.”

The CIPD’s ‘Conflict Management: a shift in direction?’ report revealed a marked interest by employers in developing internal mediation skills, particularly among HR staff, to be deployed for example in ‘facilitated discussion’ with the parties to workplace conflict. Employers are also focusing on training line managers in managing conflict and handling ‘difficult conversations’. Nearly half of respondents reported that their organisation has trained line managers in handling ‘difficult conversations’ or conflict in the last 12 months, and more than half of respondents in all sectors report that its use is increasing. Training line managers and troubleshooting by HR are the two methods of handling conflict that have shown the largest increases in use by employers over the last two years, the CIPD survey found. 

The impact of unresolved conflict can be devastating both for the team and the individual staff members, remarks Liddle. “By resolving conflict, you can build high levels of engagement and trust in teams and individuals feel happier and healthier in the workplace. People are able to feel more productive and there is increasing evidence coming through that shows where conflict is managed effectively in teams then they can be more innovative and have new approaches to problems.”

Conflict in a team can affect the morale of its members, remarks Peticca-Harris. “If conflict is unresolved in the long-term then it can lead to retention issues. It’s important to resolve conflict in a timely manner and manage the emotional impact of it. The other piece is if your manager is not taking an active stance to resolve conflict then you’re likely to have less faith in your manager’s ability. HR can play a role in resolving conflict especially if the manager is the source of the conflict, says Peticca-Harris. “HR can act as an immediate line of inquiry if an employee has an issue but they can also give more inter-personal skills training to managers to help them resolve conflict," Harris says.

Conflict within a team can place a manager in a difficult position. Liddle argues that managers need to be competent enough to recognise the conflict and understand that all teams go through conflict as part of their development. “Don’t shy away from dealing with it. Recognise that conflict is ‘business as usual’ and have open and honest conversations about where it’s coming from? What does the team need to do to move forward and then start to create a map in terms of building a strong, high-performing team.”

Liddle believes that conflict isn’t the problem, it’s the way that it’s managed in the workplace. “If you have a confident manager who can transform the problem from destructive to constructive then it can useful.”

There is a myth that effective teams don’t have conflict, argues Stephan Lucks, managing psychologist at Pearn Kandola. “In teams where there is a high degree of conflict, the thing that differentiates highly effective teams from less effective teams is the ability to sort out conflict when it arises.  What has been observed is that highly effective teams seem to have more conflict but the key thing is knowing how to resolve that conflict.”

Lord advises managers to embrace conflict as part of their working life. “In the working world, people have different opinions about all manners of things and if you do change things, then conflict will arise.”

Liddle recommends that managers take the following steps to resolve conflict:

• Step back and retain a level of objectivity and impartiality and use your ears and speak less and listen more
• Try and put yourself in the other person’s shoes and be empathetic. You may not agree with them but ask a variety of questions
• Don’t make assumptions and summarise back what you’re hearing from the team
• By bringing together the conflicted parties it will allow everyone to talk and speak out
• Depersonalise the problem and make it a shared problem so it’s a shared solution

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