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Conflict in the Workplace

There are not many certainties in the modern workplace. One of the few, however, is that there will be conflict.No matter how harmonious your organisation may be, it contains human beings, and human beings have a tendency to clash.

They just can’t help it, especially when they’re under pressure. People have different goals, they have different needs and in these challenging times, they most certainly have different moods.

Conflict can arise in many different forms, from quiet irritation to persistent disagreement to full-scale verbal or even physical fighting; but it is inevitable. Given this reality, there is a simple choice. The conflict can be addressed constructively, and therefore resolved, or it can be dealt with destructively, which will only prolong the misery.

The destructive route (which includes ignoring conflict) is disastrous both for individuals and organisations. Among employees it can lead to stress, anxiety and anger. For companies, it is a fast track to rapid turnover, rising absence and declining revenues.

By the same token, a constructive and positive approach to conflict can boost self-esteem and confidence, increase a sense of connection and creativity on both an individual and a team level, and lead eventually to a more satisfying, productive and peaceful working environment.

The cost of workplace conflict

Before we look at the causes and symptoms of workplace conflict, it’s worth taking a moment to think about the impact that it has on business in this country. If you think that dealing with arguments in the office is a peripheral consideration, think again.

According to a global report released in late 2008 by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), some 370 million working days were lost in Britain the previous year due to poorly managed conflicts in the workplace. This cost British employers more than £24 billion.

“Workplace conflict is nothing new,” said Robert McHenry, CEO of business psychology firm OPP, which co-authored the report. “But in the context of the current economic downturn, businesses could see steep rises in conflict as workloads increase, budgets shrink and stress levels rise.”

Worryingly, the report also revealed that some 55 percent of the UK workforce has never received any training in effective conflict management. So despite the huge magnitude of the problem, more than half of us have never been given any instruction in how to deal with it.

Ill-equipped as we are, it comes as no surprise then that the vast majority of British workers (89 percent) have experienced workplace conflict that has escalated. And we wonder why we all feel so stressed!

Causes and levels of conflict

More often than not, a workplace conflict first comes to light in the form of a clash between two or more individuals. These disagreements can be driven by a range of individual factors, including poor interpersonal skills, competing needs and goals, conflicting values, personal problems outside of work, low self-esteem and mental health problems.

Experts in mediation and conflict resolution point out, however, that it is rarely that simple. Research shows that the difficulties of a few flawed individuals rarely constitute the real problem. The roots of unhealthy workplace conflict are almost always far more complex and systemic. They include lack of clear and consistent leadership, poor internal communication, inadequate training opportunities, ineffective organizational systems, lack of clarity about roles and unrealistic expectations.

Along with the combination of different factors that can contribute to workplace conflict, there are also several different levels that can be experienced, ranging from minor disputes to full-blown confrontations.

Workplace psychologist Tony Buon cites the following:

- Discomfort. This is a situation where nothing is said, but there is a sense that things just don’t feel right.

- Incidents. Here an outward clash occurs, but there is no significant emotional response.

- Misunderstandings. On this level, the different parties have begun to hold negative images of the other but it is still relatively easy to fix the dispute through information sharing and open communication.

- Tensions. Conflicts become increasingly difficult to resolve as one or more of the parties have started to form fixed beliefs and positions about the other person.

- Crisis. At this final stage, trust has broken down and there is little opportunity for restoring a healthy working relationship.

- Extreme gestures are either contemplated or executed.

Buon writes: “Whilst a conflict may start at one end of this continuum involving behaviours that are seemingly minor or can reasonably be regarded as just a normal part of day-to-day working life, minor conflict situations have the potential to change … into far more serious conficts involving behaviours such as bullying or harassment and acts of retaliation, sabotage, physical assault or violence.”

(Buon, T. (2008) Perspectives on Managing Workplace Conflict. In Employee Well-being Support: A Workplace Resource. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.)

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