Conflict in the workplace is not always a bad thing. But ignoring it can be counterproductive in the long-term. Absence of conflict on the other hand, can signal indifference and apathy.
Conflict has the capacity not only to cause harm and pain, but also serves as a catalyst for positive change in the workplace when properly utilised. A possible reason for its bad reputation is that conflicts are often poorly managed and handled in painful ways.
Conflict is inevitable because we are human beings and come from different backgrounds. This diversity should encourage organizations to seize opportunities to bring people/employees together as frequently as possible thus creating platforms for them to get to know each other better.
- What is Conflict?
According to an online Oxford dictionary, the word Conflict when used as a noun, means “a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one”.
When used as a verb, it means “to be incompatible or at variance; to clash”.
In an organisation, employee conflicts can happen during team work. No one benefits when these conflicts are ignored – not the staff, not the supervisors and certainly not the clients.
While it is a natural human tendency to avoid uncomfortable conflict with others, that tactic would not work in the long-term. Workplace conflicts happen everywhere and ignoring them can be costly. According to Joseph Grenny;
“Every unaddressed conflict wastes about eight hours of company time in gossip and other unproductive activities”.
Now multiply that by all the issues left unresolved and the picture of a dysfunctional environment begins to emerge.
Understanding the reasons behind workplace conflicts can help HR professionals tackle problems before a conflict turns into a face-off between colleagues or departments that refuse to work together or a screaming match between parties involved.
A good place to start is by realising that, even though people may shy away from it, conflict is normal and healthy. In fact, many believe that it is a vital ingredient to organisational success. Experts have found that the most effective teams are those in which members feel safe enough to disagree with one another. A culture where disagreements are allowed, or even encouraged, can spur innovation, diversity of thought and better decision-making. According to Casey Swartz;
““Conflict suggests the way you’ve been doing things is not the way it’s going to be forever”.
The challenge is in figuring out which conflicts are healthy and which ones are harmful. Unhealthy conflict arises when it becomes personal and emotional and personal judgment gets clouded. Healthy conflict can lead to higher levels of trust and if people see that it is okay to disagree with the boss, they can question the status quo, which is often better for the organisation. It is therefore important to explore areas where people often do not align within an organisation.
Some disputes are over resources such as budgets; others erupt from incompatible goals or reactions to structural change in the company.
- When Should HR Step In?
Human Resource professionals and conflict management experts recommend that HR get involved in workplace conflicts when:
- Employees are threatening to quit because of the problem. Recruiting and training new employees is expensive, and it is cheaper to work out a solution.
- Disagreements are getting personal, and respect between employees is being eroded.
- Conflicts are affecting morale and organisational success.
- Conflicting perspectives persist in the workplace.
In an increasingly global and diverse workplace, sometimes the heart of the problem is that people differ from each other in age, gender, ethnicity or personality type.
- Steps to Resolving Conflict in the Workplace
- Schedule a meeting to address the problem, preferably at a neutral place.
- Set ground rules. Ask parties involved to treat each other with respect and to make an effort to listen and understand others’ views.
- Ask each party to describe the conflict, including desired changes. Direct parties involved to use “I” statements, not “you” statements. They should focus on specific behaviours and problems rather than people.
- Ask parties involved to restate what others have said.
- Summarise the conflict based on what you have heard and obtain agreement from participants.
- Brainstorm solutions and discuss all the options in a positive manner.
- Rule out any options that parties involved agree are unworkable.
- Summarise all possible options for a solution.
- Assign further analysis of each option to individual parties.
- Make sure parties involved agree on the next steps.
- Close the meeting by asking parties involved to shake hands, apologise to each other if necessary and thank each other for working to resolve the conflict.
- When Should You Seek Outside Help?
While it is better to address workplace conflicts as soon as possible and inhouse, sometimes you need outside help from a Mediator, Arbitrator or Lawyer. Those situations include the following:
- When potential legal issues are involved, such as allegations of discrimination or harassment.
- When the HR department does not have the time or training to provide the conflict resolution assistance needed.
- When there are patterns of recurring issues.
- When the flare-ups are becoming abusive or resemble bullying.
- When a supervisor needs retraining that cannot be done in-house.
- When the work environment is so toxic and it is time to get everyone offsite, so the office does not trigger continuing negative responses.
Creating a culture of trust is a crucial job for Human Resource professionals. It is vital to make sure as an HR staff that when people come to you for conflict resolution, the issue does not go unresolved.
Below are some tips for building trust, encouraging good conflict, and preventing or addressing the bad kind:
- Employee survey: Conduct annual employee satisfaction and engagement surveys and have loads of conversations with employees to unearth issues requiring immediate attention and resolution.
- Catch people doing things right: Supervisors should seek out opportunities to acknowledge and praise employees. Doing so creates an environment where people feel comfortable bringing up problems.
- Welcome dissent: Supervisors should encourage dissents that are focused on tasks, strategies, and actualisation of the organisation’s mission. Sometimes a retreat with an outside facilitator is the best way to get beyond surface conversations.
- Create diverse teams: Create work teams whose members have diverse expertise, ways of thinking and backgrounds. Appointing a rotating ‘devil’s advocate’ is a good way to stir up productive conflict.
Conflict is inevitable wherever you have two or more persons interacting on a regular basis, with its positive and negative attributes. Conflict in the workplace is often the result of poor communication amongst colleagues, teams, and departments. Unresolved conflict can impact organisational culture, employee performance, retention, and the bottom line. Use clear communication strategies to resolve these conflicts. If we approach difficulties as needing to take place in one or a series of conversations, and we approach those conversations with a plan, we will find we have less difficult people to deal with in the workplace. Also, we will have more meaningful and significant conversations.
For further information on this article and area of practice, please contact
Rafat Dada at S. P. A. Ajibade & Co., Lagos
By Telephone (+234.1.270.3009; +234.1.460.5091), Fax (+234 1 4605092)
Mobile (+234.815.088.2798, +234.802.343.3794)
 See Online Oxford Learner’s dictionary available at: https://www.google.com/search?q=conflict+meaning&rlz=1C1CHBD_enNG969NG969&oq=conflict+meaning&aqs=chrome.69i57j0i512l9.6482j1j15&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8 accessed on 15th June 2022.
 Joseph Grenny, “How to Resolve Workplace Conflicts”, co-founder of VitalSmarts, a training and organisational development company in Provo, Utah. The society for Human Resource Management; available at www.shrm.org, https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/pages/070815-conflict-management.aspx accessed on 15th June 2022.
The society for Human Resource Management; available at www.shrm.org, https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/pages/070815-conflict-management.aspx accessed on 15th June 2022.
 See “How to Resolve Workplace Conflicts” – The society for Human Resource Management; available at: www.shrm.org, https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/pages/070815-conflict-management.aspx accessed on 15th June 2022.
 “How to Resolve Workplace Conflicts” – The society for Human Resource Management; available at: www.shrm.org, https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/pages/070815-conflict-management.aspx accessed on 17th June 2022.