Which manager doesn’t wish for his or her team to cooperate harmoniously and efficiently, free from interpersonal tension and petty arguing?

Sadly, managing conflict in the workplace continues to be a challenge for most managers.

Whilst businesses benefit from the interaction of employees with diverse personalities, not every employee is necessarily going to get on well with every other team member.

You may have experienced firsthand that resolving conflict in the workplace can be a time consuming and costly task.

Some of your fellow managers report spending up to 2 whole days per week on managing difficult employees and clashes between toxic team members.

It’s certainly a huge drain on the levels of productivity and morale in your business. No-one enjoys working within a team, where tension and discord lingers and arguments go unchecked by the team leader.

Cworkplace conflictIPD figures speak for themselves

Take the survey report of employers’ experiences of managing workplace conflict published by the CIPD in 2011, for example. The survey shows that the annual cost of conflict resolution to UK businesses amounted to around £33 billion.

In addition, an average of 20% of leadership time and 370 million working days are lost due to conflict resolution every year. These figures persuasively underline that dealing with workplace conflict erodes your business resources enormously.

The quarterly statistics issued by the Ministry of Justice for January to March 2013 makes further uncomfortable reading for managers and line managers in particular.

A staggering 57,737 cases of workplace conflict failed to be resolved internally or amicably and were brought to the Employment Tribunal; an increase of more than 36 per cent over the same period last year.

These figures speak for themselves. It pays to invest in the management and leadership skills of conflict management and resolution.
So, how can you stop your business from becoming part of these statistics?

It’s rare for a conflict in the workplace to escalate without early warning signs. Friction and tension between different parties will usually have been building over time. Eventually they come to a head when one or both parties ‘snap’.

Knowing where the potential conflict hotspots and their causes lie within your team – or indeed the organisation as a whole – is paramount.

Without this knowledge, it is difficult for managers to identify that often small window of opportunity and hence impact a resolution, before the conflict escalates.

Areas of potential conflict in the workplace

Workplace conflict comes in many shapes and sizes and finds its cause predominantly in personalities interacting and engaging with each other.

Conflict types can loosely be grouped into five main categories and it is important to be aware of these:

  • Differences in leadership: As employees move up through the company, inconsistent and unaligned leadership styles can cause confusion and uncertainties.
  • Interpersonal conflict: A conflict can arise when two people’s personalities clash and their ideas, decisions or actions relating directly to the job are opposed.
  • Interdependence conflict: If one person’s performance relies on the input, commitment and behaviour of another person or team in the workplace and this workflow is disrupted, the situation can quickly become a source of frustration and anger.
  • Style differences in a team: Our personality traits cause us to prefer one style and tempo of working over another. Some of us like to deliver precise work at a steady pace, whilst others like to get the job done adequately, but quickly. Style clashes within a team can cause friction.
  • Differences in background and gender: Differences in educational backgrounds, personal experiences, ethnic heritage, gender and political persuasions can colour people’s approach to work and their attitudes towards their colleagues. These can then develop into potential flashpoints.

Personality clashes usually cause conflict

The common thread running through most of these conflict types is human behaviour and personalities. Certain personalities will naturally engage well with some but not others.

It stands to reason that a team made up of people with compatible, but by no means identical, temperaments and therefore working styles – or indeed diverse but well managed personalities – can help to create a more harmonious workplace.

Consequently, knowing your staff and their natural personality styles must be at the centre of any strategy for conflict prevention.

This is where being able to create a personality record of employees and job candidates with the help of behavioural assessments can enable managers to create and manage a cooperative team.

At the same time, this knowledge will sharpen awareness for any potential flashpoints between employees.

This type of analysis has to go hand in hand with open but sensitive employee feedback and dialogue to enable managers to remain perceptive of any potential problem areas in the workplace.

A company which utilises a database of employee reviews and behavioural assessments creates a solid platform for reviewing and analysing a conflict situation, if it does occur.

How to identify early signs of conflict?

Not all forms of conflict are obvious. The better you know your team, the easier it will be to identify early warning signs of conflict and their effects. Some individuals might hide their feelings as a way of coping with a problem in the workplace.

A careful analysis of the responses to employee surveys or questionnaires, which are collected throughout the year, can provide initial indicators to any underlying dissatisfaction amongst employees.

The level of team motivation is an important gauge for whether the cogs of team dynamics are turning smoothly. If morale is low, fewer people may volunteer to take on new tasks and routine jobs may simply be left undone.

This has a direct effect on productivity. If employees are not fully cooperating with each other, the number of queries and complaints from clients and customers are likely to increase.

Projects may be endangered, creativity stifled and time wasted. You may notice that team meetings or briefings don’t solicit the expected employee input. Subtle changes in behaviour may be noticeable.

People may start to make derogatory remarks about each other. The level of interacting and socialising within the team may drop.

The number of sickness absences is also an important indicator of trouble brewing. Unhappiness may lead to depression or stress or employees simply wishing to avoid being at work. The level of staff turnover may increase.

Whilst conflict can occur in any social and organisation setting, the challenge lies in how you choose to deal with it.

How to manage conflict confidently

It is usually up to line managers to decide when to liaise with HR or senior managers over the best course of action.

Whilst ignoring flashpoints is a costly option, it takes training in conflict resolution, adequate assessment tools, in-depth knowledge of the team, sensitivity, acute listening skills and experience for a manager to be able to pinpoint the right moment to intervene in a workplace conflict…or indeed to know whether to intervene at all.

Initially, taking each individual on their own merits and not seeking to apportion blame until the true cause of the conflict has been established, is a sensible and solid approach. In many disputes, the cause of the problem can be eliminated by simply allowing employees to vent and express their feelings.

Knowing the personalities at the centre of the dispute will also help managers to determine the appropriate course of action. It takes time and energy to get to know your team, but the figures indicate that it takes even more time and energy to deal with workplace conflict.

“Harmony makes small things grow, lack of it makes great things decay” (Sallust)

Conflict prevention may seem like a complex strategy, but it is one that is well worth investing in. Don’t ignore the figures and allow your business to join the ranks of those who lose their best talent to a safer and happier work environment.

Dealing with workplace conflict does not only cost businesses time and money, it damages team stability and creates a depressing working environment with poor employee engagement and retention.

This is why investing time and money into a better understanding of how we can avoid – or at least manage – conflict, makes sense for any organisation.

So, are you aiming for a team with similar temperaments that cooperates harmoniously, or a mixture of personalities who help to avoid group thinking and drive forward new ideas?

Is one preferable over the other, as long as you have the strategy and tools in place to help managers identify potential hotspots and nurture the team to harmony?

I would even argue that there is a strong need for encouraging and facilitating constructive conflict in the workplace…but that’s another story for another day.

Please leave your comments below – I’d love to hear how you deal with workplace conflict, and how you make the best of your team.

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