Managing Conflict in the Workplace

Surfing has never been shy of conflict - whether it’s clubbies vs. surfers, locals vs. tourists, guys vs. girls, grommets vs. oldies, hand shapers vs. manufacturers, short boards vs. long, free surfers vs. pros, wearing a leash vs. not wearing one…the list goes on. 

Conflict, whether it happens in the water or the workplace, is inevitable. It stems from disagreement and can occur in different ways, whether that happens between two individuals (interpersonal), within or between groups (intergroup and intragroup), within an organisation (interorganisational), or even with oneself (intrapersonal).

There are sound arguments that when effectively managed conflict can be a good thing – enabling greater problem solving, providing different perspectives and fostering greater creativity, cooperation and collaboration. But how does being well versed with tensions on the beach translate to knowing how to manage conflict in the workplace. 

Managing conflict is an ongoing challenge. It requires a good understanding of what conflict involves and why it happens, as well as maintaining a level of comfort (or for most people discomfort) in tolerating tensions and not shying away from disagreements.

So what is conflict and why does it occur?

Broadly speaking, conflict can be categorised as constructive and destructive. Constructive conflict results in positive benefits and outcomes, destructive conflict disadvantages everyone involved. In the workplace, the most common forms of conflict centre on three things:

  1. Relationships – this involves disagreements based on personal and social issues and can also be a result of differences in personal styles (e.g. someone’s degree of emotional intelligence or their behavioural preference).
  2. Tasks - conflict relating to tasks involves disagreements about the nature of the work being done.
  3. Process - conflict involves disagreements about how the work is done, which could be the chosen approach or strategy, how the work is delegated or the allocated resources.

In work situations conflict can arise as a result of:

  • Workflow interdependence – this happens most often in teams.
  • Power or status asymmetry – where one person or group is weighted with more senior members or where someone has a greater influence, which often happens between new and existing staff. The way power is exercised can also create conflict, particularly if it is perceived to be unfair or unjust.
  • Role ambiguity – not having a clear understanding of responsibilities and requirements.
  • Resource scarcity – particularly if there is pressure on individuals to have to ‘make up’ for the work of others who are absent or not pulling their weight.

If it goes unresolved, destructive workplace conflict is felt in many negative ways including; personal stress and illness, relationship breakdowns, low staff engagement and morale, suboptimal teamwork, decreased productivity, stress, lack of organisational cohesion and disabling opportunities for collaboration.

When conflict arises, people normally shy away or attempt to ignore it but conflicts don’t simply dissolve when avoided. Managing conflict involves working with conflicts that emerge before they become destructive. This includes providing an environment where conflicting interests are explored rather than avoided.

Here are some ways to prevent destructive conflict while also enhancing the opportunity for open and constructive conflict:

  • Listen carefully – take the time to really understand the situation fully and be open to alternative perspectives.
  • Monitor your employee’s work – ensure they are clear on the task at hand as well as their role requirements and responsibilities.
  • Encourage your staff to approach you – be open to any questions and concerns, particularly for new employees, this will also help to alleviate any confusion about role requirements.
  • Clear the air with regular meetings – encourage your team to contribute and voice concerns.
  • Provide a suggestion box – this can help for staff who may not have the confidence to voice their ideas in more public forums.
  • Offer information about decisions – be clear about why decisions have been made and ensure transparency and fairness in making those decisions, particularly when it comes to performance or promotions.
  • Use employee surveys – this can empower staff to share their ideas as well as voicing concerns.

If conflict can be surfaced and worked through to achieve positive outcomes everyone wins. And like the sharing of waves amongst a crowded line up, managing conflict just requires greater awareness, acceptance, a little patience and cooperation.

Posted by: Jaclyn Knight, on April 7, 2015
Categories: Articles

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