Addressing Workplace Conflict BEFORE conflict arises

A quick conversation over lunch recently confirmed the impact and ripple effect of workplace conflict and why it costs UK plc upwards of £33bn per year.

A friend described her intense frustration with a colleague who seemed to be intentionally dragging her feet in providing information needed to respond quickly to clients and win business as a team. Turns out it wasn’t an issue around workload, need for support, delegation etc. because others were getting information on time – it was personal. This led to a full-blown argument in the office with both bosses involved in trying to address the issue. 

Unfortunately, nothing has been resolved, a cold war exists, the office atmosphere is thick with tension, even less interaction around work… and mounting stress for everyone. 

Scenarios like this demonstrate how an inability to build strong relationships, minimise conflict in the first place, and resolve conflict effectively when it does arise can damage emotional and mental wellbeing. As well as cost the company hugely in real bottom line £s. 

Unresolved conflict bears significant consequences – working out of the office and / or absenteeism in order to avoid a colleague, lost productivity, 20% management time spent on addressing the conflict, mental / physical illness as a result of tension and stress, and ultimately loss of key talent when one or other decides to leave.

Often the approach to addressing workplace conflict is focused on the conflict event, offering interventions like mediation and improved listening skills.  

Dealing with conflict effectively must start long before the conflict actually arises.  

Most people have good intentions and want a peaceful life with those around them. Usually conflict arises from misunderstood differences rather than deliberate ill-intent.  The better we get at understanding and genuinely respecting differences and building relationships of mutual trust, the better we’re able to minimise and manage conflict.  

Quite often, we end up in conflict situations because we expect people to think, respond and behave the way we do – which of course they don’t, because no one is a carbon copy. 

When our expectations are disappointed or frustrated, our natural tendency is to judge and criticise the way others behave or respond. We ascribe meaning (ill-intent) to something that could have been done in innocence.  Consciously or unconsciously we assume our view of the world is normal and right.  In our minds, every other option is weird and/or wrong.

But the better we get at understanding other perspectives, the more we can anticipate behaviours, make allowances for each other and use a better filter on behaviours we are perceiving so we don’t take offense easily. 

And when things do go wrong – because they will – we can have better conversations and better outcomes – instead of grievance proceedings.

This is easy to say but much more difficult to do. 

It’s like learning to play rugby or football. Anybody can kick or throw a ball but excelling at the sport requires being able to deliver consistent performance under pressure. 

David Allred, coach for England rugby legend Jonny Wilkinson, said it best.

It’s about –

“distilling the skill to its very basic component and then replicating that skill under ever-increasing degrees of pressure and accountability”.  

It’s the same with building strong relational relationship skills.

Knowing what to do or even how to do it is miles away from actually turning up well, treating ourselves and others with respect and remaining consistent in character and behaviour even under pressure – like the pressure of conflict situations.  As with sports, the key is to go back to the fundamentals, learn the basic concepts and techniques, and practice and apply the learning until we achieve genuine relationship-centred behaviour changes.

Instead of defaulting to our instinctive, self-protecting responses we are empowered to choose our responses and be intentional about behaviours that build and strengthen relationships. And the more empowered we become, the better we are able to eliminate unnecessary misunderstandings and to have meaningful conversations that genuinely resolve issues when conflict inevitably occurs.

Workplace conflict is just one of the ways that organisations bear the cost of broken relationships.

Recent research confirms that high-earners are 3.5 times more likely to end up with broken relationships at home and when they do, productivity at work suffers. 

42% of respondents confirmed they were more distracted and less productive because of relationship difficulties at home, much of which was actually caused by the general pressure of work. Organisations are also paying hugely for the cost of broken relationships at home – they just don’t realise it.

To address broken relationships at home and at work, and the consequent bottom line costs, both organisations and individuals must take ownership for proactively developing their level of relational intelligence long before conflict situations arise. That way people can turn up better in all their one on one interactions, take care of each other even during conflict and strengthen rather than damage relationships through the process.  But it’s more than just knowing, it’s the doing until our default responses reflect habits that build great relationships.

A group of four asian men sit around a conference table with charts and a laptop. Two of the men are arguing.

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