Whilst perusing the HR press the other day (okay, reading one of the many email circulars that land in my inbox every day), a news headline caught my eye and made me wince: “Workplace conflict costs employers £30bn a year, study finds”. This is indeed an eye-watering amount of money, which would otherwise presumably be contributing towards the bottom line of businesses in all sectors of our economy.
Now, I could talk about how the study’s authors measured and calculated that figure – and comment on the why’s and wherefores of its accuracy. However, I’m not in the business of trying to invalidate the findings or the situation they reveal. Instead, taking it at face value, I am instinctively curious and feel the need to further understand this troubling dimension of work.
We all know that workplace conflict exists. At some point or other, we’ve all been exposed to it, embroiled in it and felt its draining and debilitating effects. And just for clarity, we’re not talking about the ‘healthy tension’ type of conflict here – that can be very positive for an organisation. We’re talking about the kind of thing that can result in toxic relationships, sickness absence, disciplinaries, resignations, etc.
This particular study, based on CIPD data, finds that almost 10 million employees endured some kind of workplace conflict in a 12-month period, with roughly half of them experiencing stress, anxiety and/or depression as a result. That’s a lot of conflicts and a lot of fallout.
So, where is all this conflict coming from? Surely our workplaces aren’t so permanently dysfunctional and hostile – are they? The short answer is ‘no’, but perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that there seems to be a lot of conflict about.
For starters, the very nature of an organisation has the potential for conflict hard-wired into it. Any organisation, from the vibrant, young, exciting start-up of just a few people through to the vast, monolithic multi-national corporation is made up of people formed into different parts – each with their own function, specialisation and therefore, their own needs and interests.
Layer on to this, the fact that humans naturally form tribes. We prefer to be in groups with people who are like us and can easily treat those who are not like us with anything from indifference, through suspicion to plain hostility. We need only consider the DE&I agenda in many organisations to illustrate this.
Then there’s the added dimension of the results, goals and targets that need to be achieved – the unfaltering quest for ever-higher levels of performance – and it’s easy to see that people’s behaviour becomes more oriented towards the pursuit of what is important to them and their bit.
This is the fundamental basis of organisational politics: I do everything that I can to serve the needs and interests of myself and/or my part of the organisational. I seek to gain advantage – possibly at the expense of others, and possibly by being less than transparent if necessary.
The pressure to perform that modern organisational life puts on employees is a major factor in all this conflict potential. We’re all just trying to do a good job, get things done, deliver against ever more challenging expectations, keep our stakeholders happy and have a career and a life outside work. Easy! Except for the fact that other people get in the way.
And it’s not just that those ‘other people’ are oriented towards different needs and interests – which may at times be at odds with our own. It’s that we don’t, on the whole, get to choose who these people are (hence the title of this piece).
But it gets even more interesting because individual differences will also come into play: we may have incompatible goals, but at the same time we’re different human beings. We have different personalities, different backgrounds, different worldviews, values, beliefs, motivations, levels of experience, skills… (I could go on, but you get the picture). As a result, we all have different realities: we see things differently to others and are genuinely baffled when they ‘just don’t get it’.
Finally, there can be no doubt that working in a hybrid/remote context – as many of us have been over the last 14 months and look set to for the foreseeable future – serves only to exacerbate the divisive effect of what I describe above.
So… given all this difference, it’s a wonder that anything ever gets done in organisations – a fact that I’ve invited people to reflect on more than once in the course of my work.
Understanding the sources of workplace conflict is, of course, only half the story. What is to be done?
Let’s return to that study for a moment. Among the recommendations (which largely focus on HR policy and processes for conflict resolution) the authors make brief mention of “core people skills” which would enable better interactions between staff. This would seem to me to be the fundamental point here – almost impossible to overstate.
For the reasons outlined above, it’s unrealistic to think that conflict can be eradicated. So, doesn’t it make sense to focus on resolution at the point of occurrence – rather than later when things have gone horribly sour?
At the heart of this, lies the cultivation of emotional intelligence: a group of learnable skills that affect our attitudes, feelings and behaviour. It is these aspects of a person that enable them to stand in a place of division, exasperation, stress or fatigue, to recognise their own reactions to what is going on and to make behavioural choices that will yield a productive outcome.
Our capacity for interpersonal understanding plays a key role in building emotional intelligence – both at an individual and a group level. When teams invest in ‘maintenance processes’ that allows them to reflect on how they are working together and how it could be better, they learn more about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, habits and blind spots. When this is underpinned by robust psychometric tools such as Facet5, the depth of discussion that becomes possible provides an important key to building tolerance, trust and psychological safety.
Finding a common purpose and common ground are also vital ingredients here. When we have a clear sense of what we all/both want (and are working towards) it gives us more appetite for dealing with conflicting agendas. But this must be workable at multiple levels: it’s not enough to have a company purpose that everyone can get behind (although this is highly advantageous). It’s also about people in teams throughout the organisation being able to agree and be reminded of what their collective endeavours really mean and why.
Lastly, dialogue skills are the practical behavioural component to working through conflict. The ability to fully engage, stay on track, draw out the subtleties of where the other person is coming from, and express ourselves honestly, simply and with sensitivity, all combine to enable transformative conversations that we would otherwise dare not have or think were simply not possible.
So, workplace conflict is an inevitable reality in organisational life. It will always be there. But rather than being the vast drain on resources – not to mention the soul – that these latest statistics imply, it can be managed in such a way that moderates the ill effects. With the right focus and careful intervention, people in organisations can learn to interact in healthier ways, that honour both their goals and those of others.
Roger Coles is founder and Director of Keeping It Human, an organisation development consultancy that specialises in helping companies build workplaces where people can flourish.