Workplace conflict | What it is and ways to manage it

Written on 18 August 2021

With the sudden and drastic changes that have occurred across the working world over the past 18 months, workplace conflict has risen dramatically as a natural by-product. 

But while we often think of conflict as occurring between colleagues, this recent uptick in disputes appears to be between employees and the organisation itself.

While the trend may be easy to spot, defining it is less straightforward. Workplace conflict is a broad area that can entail anything from employees displaying signs of irrational behaviour, a lack of responsiveness to management instructions, or even just being hostile to constructive feedback.

For employers, these scenarios can incur significant expense. In fact, according to a recent Acas report, workplace conflict costs organisations roughly £1,000 per employee per year in management time, absences, presenteeism and possible resignations. For example, if conflict results in disciplinary action, and it often does, the estimated cost of each case is approximately £1,141.

What’s more, Acas predicts that the pandemic will exacerbate the problem further, saying “conflict will be more likely as organisations adapt to a new normal and problems suppressed during the crisis start to rise to the surface, requiring effective organisational responses.”

It adds: “A more sustained shift to remote working and the potential acceleration of automation will create new challenges for the effective management of people, placing a premium on the skills needed to prevent, manage and resolve conflict.”

Given the potential for disputes to arise in any industry or organisation, all employers must be alert to these issues. So what is workplace conflict, what can cause it, and how can employers resolve it in an appropriate and effective manner? Here’s our overview.

Understanding conflict in the workplace

With workplace conflict bearing the potential for lengthy procedures and great cost, it’s important that employers understand the true nature of it and why it can arise.

At the most basic level, conflict can arise from a simple work-related issue such as poor attendance or timekeeping, or perhaps a more specific, one-off disagreement between two parties.

However, the question of what can cause conflict in the workplace is an overwhelmingly broad one. It can manifest in any number of ways and occur across a wide spectrum of behaviour, ranging from a personality clash to more serious types of unfair treatment like bullying and harassment. It can also be obvious, like a heated argument, or less visible, like excluding someone from a work social event.

But in general, conflict tends to centre around emotions and feelings. There are always procedural and psychological needs to be addressed within it, in addition to the more tangible, substantive needs. Therefore, if we are to resolve conflict in the workplace effectively, we must take into account people’s emotional needs, interests and concerns as well as focusing on the situation itself.

To understand it in its totality, conflict can be broken down into a three-dimensional framework: cognitive (perception), emotional (feeling) and behavioural (action). This perspective can help us understand the complexities of workplace conflict.

The nature of conflict in one dimension will affect its nature in the other two – it does not proceed along one simple path. This accounts for much of what appears to be irrational behaviour in conflict.

For context, let’s look at a common workplace conflict example. Imagine that two employees are assigned a particular task and soon find themselves in a conflict over whether they are each pulling their weight. An outburst occurs as a result, and the manager has to step in. The manager then meets with them both to discuss a resolution, and they agree on a new working arrangement, allocation of tasks, and certain behavioural standards. 

So, has the conflict been resolved? It may have been temporarily alleviated by agreeing on behavioural standards, but it’s likely that each party goes away with the same frustrations they had before. Thus, progress has been made in the behavioural dimension, but the emotional dimension is perhaps worse, and there are contradictory developments in the cognitive dimension.

As a result, while these employees may cease their conflictual behaviour, the tension between them remains. It’s crucial that managers are able to recognise this and consciously address each dimension in order to achieve a more complete solution.

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The different types of workplace conflict

Conflict can be productive or destructive, passive or active, and manifest in an almost infinite number of ways.

But while each scenario will be different, conflict tends to follow certain stages and bear certain distinctions that can be recognised. If leaders can learn and understand these stages, incidents will be considerably easier to identify as they are emerging.

Here are what we consider to be the most commonly occurring stages of a typical conflict scenario:

  • Latent conflict: There is always some conflict bubbling under the surface in the working environment. This is a conflict scenario waiting to happen. By spotting latent conflict early, managers can address tensions early and hopefully avoid conflict altogether.
  • Triggering incident: This marks the emergence or the ‘eruption’ phase of the conflict. This event or episode may be the first appearance of the latent conflict, or it may be a confrontation that erupts in the context of a protracted, dormant, or low-level conflict.
  • Conflict: At this stage, issues begin to be aired. Parties start to make assumptions based on their positions and there will also be an element of blame being placed. People start to invest emotions and resources into remaining in the entrenched position and typically build alliances to strengthen their position.
  • New equilibrium: Even after a settlement is reached, it must be fully implemented before the conflict can be considered to be resolved. This may not be too hard with just two people involved, but larger groups can be more complicated to deal with. Those people that resolved the conflict may need to manage carefully the egos and emotional issues of all parties.
In addition to this, leaders can also learn to recognise a series of key behaviours that tend to be the driving forces behind conflict scenarios. We believe the most commonly occurring ones are:

  • Aggressive behaviours: Shouting, Using offensive language, making threats, disparaging remarks, offensive gestures, character assassination, threatening emails etc.
  • Passive behaviours: Avoiding contact, choosing indirect communication methods, arriving late, not returning emails/calls.
  • Passive aggressive behaviours: Delaying support, withholding information, unnecessarily copying everyone in on emails, sabotaging, undermining.

Similarly, commonly occurring patterns can be observed in how individuals respond to conflict. Some to look out for are:

  • Fight: Reacting in a challenging way. In a workplace context, this may mean shouting or losing your temper.
  • Flight: Ignoring the situation in the hope that it will disappear.
  • Freeze: Being unsure how to react and becoming very passive. You might begin to deal with the issue but things become drawn out through indecision.
  • Face: Approaching a problem in a calm and rational manner.

But while these are all typical signs, stages and symptoms of conflict, we can never assume that conflict is present or imminent. Ultimately, people are complex creatures and it is always possible that there are other reasons behind behaviours.

It is also worth remembering that there can be both constructive and destructive conflict in the workplace. While typically a negative occurrence for all parties, conflict can act as a healthy outlet for resolving underlying issues and correcting potential flaws in behaviour, culture and processes.

Conflict management techniques in the workplace

While conflict can be a vague and often overwhelming topic, it’s important that organisations develop ways to manage it and understand right and wrong ways to approach conflict. Here are some workplace conflict management techniques that we believe to be simple, attainable and effective.

Get confict under control with expert support

Unresolved conflict can be incredibly damaging to organisations, leading to increased sickness absence, reduced morale and productivity, and high staff turnover. Left to fester, this can escalate into grievance and disciplinary procedures or, worse, Employment Tribunal claims – incurring further expense and increasing the burden on management time.

To find out how we can help you to resolve workplace disputes efficiently and compliantly through pragmatic advice and hands-on mediation and facilitation support, get in touch on 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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