Conflict costly workplace issue if not properly managed by HR

Anticipating, identifying types of discord can help parties reach resolution
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/12/2012

Have a nice conflict: Michael Patterson, vice-president of business development at Personal Strengths, spoke at a recent Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event where he discussed five steps — anticipate, prevent, identify, manage and resolve — in dealing with organizational conflict. (Scroll down to the bottom of this article to view a video of Patterson discussing conflict.)

Mixed messages stir conflict pot (Strategic capability)

Self-worth, values at play (Leadership in action)

Unchecked conflict can be bad for business (Organizational effectiveness)

Conflict in the workplace is very costly to organizations. In the United States, conflict costs firms US$128 billion per hour per week and the average employee spends 2.8 hours per week in conflict, according to a 2008 CPP Global Human Capital Report presented by Michael Patterson at a Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in November in Toronto.

“It’s over one day per month the average employee spends in conflict,” said Patterson, vice-president of business development at Personal Strengths in Carlsbad, Calif. “And when you multiply that out, it turns out to be $359 billion that organizations in the U.S. are paying employees while they’re in conflict.”

Conflict has a profound effect on absenteeism, with 25 per cent of employees reporting they miss work due to conflict or to avoid conflict, said Patterson in reference to the CPP study, which surveyed 5,000 employees worldwide.

“We’re in the productivity business, it’s what we do, and if people are absent from work they are not productive; if they are sick and not present they are not productive,” he said. “If conflict or the avoidance of conflict is causing people to miss work, it should be an issue for all of us.”

Conflict also affects many other aspects of business including: turnover, presenteeism, grievances, litigation, disability claims and client complaints, said Patterson.

To properly deal with workplace conflict, employers need to understand the difference between opposition and conflict. Opposition is simply disagreement about different ideas, which can include very rigorous debate, said Patterson.

“But what happens when that healthy dialogue goes to, ‘Well, you always get your way when it comes to the budget,’ and ‘You’re never prepared for these meetings’ — that’s when it becomes personal… that’s when it becomes conflict.”

Conflict is an “intensely personal, emotional experience” and is a response to when people feel their sense of self-worth or something they value very deeply is being threatened, said Patterson.

The first step in dealing with organizational conflict is to anticipate it. It’s about being aware everyone sees the world differently and they all have conflict triggers that threaten their sense of self-worth and push them into conflict, he said.

“It’s about inquiry and observation. If we can watch and recognize and understand what those triggers are for people, we can get a sense of what’s really important to them,” said Patterson. “People don’t go into conflict over things that aren’t important to them so it’s
important for us to recognize what those triggers are and not present those to the people we’re working with.”

The second step, preventing conflict, is about effectively deploying strengths and proactively choosing behaviours that prevent conflict, said Patterson. For example, when trust is overdone, it can be perceived as gullible; when self-confidence is overdone, it can be perceived as arrogant; or when flexibility is overdone, it can be perceived as being wishy-washy.

“The idea of overdoing a strength is I have the volume turned up so much on my strength it gets in the way of the relationship. So it’s about having that hand on the volume control for strengths and not triggering a threat or having them perceive a threat to their self-worth,” said Patterson.

The third step is to identify the type of conflict. It’s important to identify the shift that occurs when people go into conflict, which usually appears in one of three ways:

Accommodating: When an individual wants harmony in his relationship and says, ‘It’s OK, it’s not a big deal’ but, in reality, is struggling inside.

Asserting: When an individual rises to the challenge, is very passionate about the issue and has a sense of urgency about solving it.

Analyzing: When an individual pulls away to put some distance between herself and the issue so she can think about it — she likes logic to prevail and is in no hurry to take action.

“If we can identify the way each person is approaching the conflict, whether it’s accommodating, asserting or analyzing, then we can meet them in that place where they are and give them what they need,” he said. “It’s important to spot the shift quickly and recognize the best approaches.”

The fourth step is to manage the conflict, which is a very important skill for HR and organizational leaders, said Patterson. It begins with discovering the values of the people involved and recognizing what caused them to go into conflict in the first place. Then the problem can be defined and all parties involved can be engaged in real dialogue about the issue, which will broaden their perspectives and allow them to see alternatives, said Patterson.

“We’re in a position to create conditions for others to manage themselves out of conflict — you can’t make anyone do anything, I can’t manage someone else out of conflict, but I can create conditions by which they can manage themselves.”

The final step is to resolve the conflict. This is about taking the emotional component out of it and helping those involved feel good about the situation, said Patterson. Everyone should have “a clear head and an open heart” to address the issue. Asking questions such as, “How do you feel about the situation?” and “Why is this important to you?” can help the parties involved reach a resolution.

“You want to lead the discussion back to just talking about issues where two people can have opposing ideas but neither is threatened (because) that’s where we get good productivity, good ideas, innovation. That’s where we want people to be — not caught up in emotion and the negativity of conflict.”

Return to top of the page


Mixed messages stir conflict pot (Strategic capability)

By Karen Gorsline

Employers have a vested interest in developing employees’ ability to deal with conflict in productive ways.

Whether it’s poor skills in dealing with different perspectives, bad relationships among workers or conflict that spills over from personal life into professional life, it all saps energy and resources.

Conflict results in absenteeism, increased legal costs, turnover, lost productivity and elevated health costs due to stress. And there are additional factors to consider:

Culture: Differences in thinking or behaviours that challenge the norm may not be tolerated. In that scenario, the price of driving conflict out is a loss of innovation and diversity of opinion. Organizations that advocate innovation but have rigid cultural norms may unwittingly introduce confusion and conflict into the workplace.

The competitive environment: In some cases, business units or leaders are pitted against each other to determine the most worthy. The result can be infighting, excessive competitiveness and confusion about how to deal with differing directions.

Organizations that espouse teamwork and collaboration and, at the same time, promote intense competition, send the message these qualities are only considered in the context of being a winner. This results in fragmentation — and lost opportunities, as worthy options may be ignored or lost.

Systems and processes: Sometimes operational systems and processes are overlooked and become out of sync or lag with culture change. If problems aren’t identified and addressed, it can lead to finger pointing, misunderstanding and confusion — and more conflict.

Organizations can engage in behaviours that encourage healthy debate and benefit from opposing or differing views. The core model used in Michael Patterson’s presentation — anticipate, prevent, identify, manage and resolve — may help employers present a view of the organization to employees that encourages debate and innovation, boosts productivity and keeps everyone aligned to common values and goals.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at gorslin@pathcom.com.

Return to top of the page


Self-worth, values at play (Leadership in action)

By Trish Maguire

Conflict is a normal and necessary part of healthy relationships and we can’t expect people to agree on everything all the time — that’s what the experts tell us. So learning how to deal with conflict, rather than avoiding it, is crucial — there’s no arguing there are numerous benefits to solving disagreements quickly and effectively.

Michael Patterson’s presentation pushes the goalposts a bit further out with his “I love conflict” concept.

Conflict is about motivation, intention, behaviour and relationship strengths. But it’s also about self-worth and deeply rooted in core generational beliefs and values. It occurs when people disagree about their values, ideas or desires.

It’s easy for leaders to treat these differences as trivial misunderstandings. Unintentionally, they can totally miss the fact that, when a conflict triggers strong feelings, a deep personal need is at the core of the problem — feeling safe and secure, respected and valued, heard and understood, or appreciated.

How many times, as an HR leader, have you identified the default behaviour of a leader as being contentious, only to have her superior defend it because “He gets results”?

Conflict is sometimes used inappropriately by leaders as a power game, played for their own advantage, which is not conducive to building a collaborative and open workplace. Such behaviour raises the question of accountability, as once a leader acknowledges the negative impact of conflict, it has to be addressed and resolved — this takes time, energy and skillful dialogue. An effective leader has the opportunity to be a catalyst in building an organizational culture where open, trusting partnerships are reinforced with collaboration, equality, honesty, respect and transparency.

When conflict is handled in a dismissive or defensive manner, it can cause irreparable rifts, resentments and ill-will. But when conflict is resolved in an empathetic way, it increases our understanding of one another, builds trust and strengthens relationships. When leaders recognize the legitimacy of conflicting needs, and are willing to examine them with compassion and understanding, it allows for creative problem-solving, team- building and improved relationships. Moving people from contentious conflict to “nice conflict” is about allowing the positive within us to emerge.

The key human element for successfully managing and resolving conflict starts with us learning to balance our own emotions first. Six tips I continue to find effective are:

• Listen to what is said and for what is being felt.

Pick up on the wordless clues that reveal the feelings of others.

• Make conflict resolution the priority, rather than winning or being right.

• Focus on the present.

• Be willing to forgive.

• Know when to let go.

Effective leaders don’t wait for other people to change first — they change their own thinking and behaviour first.

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions, focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and organizational development in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial organizations and can be reached at synergyx@sympatico.ca.

Return to top of the page


Unchecked conflict can be bad for business (Organizational effectiveness)

By Barbara Kofman

There is collateral damage when conflict goes unchecked at an organization and its culture becomes adversarial. Conflict creates a toxic work environment, makes it less strategic and more reactive, diminishes the overall workforce capacity and dramatically reduces an organization’s ability to attract and retain good staff.

According to Michael Patterson, who quoted countless statistics to emphasize this point, conflict clearly eats into productivity and the bottom line at an alarming rate.

We’ve heard previously that people don’t leave organizations, they leave bad managers. Turnover costs anywhere from 100 per cent to 250 per cent of an employee’s annual salary and absenteeism and lack of engagement drain productivity.

And most of us are well aware of the difference between bad conflict, and the damage it causes in the workplace, and good conflict — the type first practised by legendary GE CEO Jack Welch, which encourages debate and leads to innovation and healthier decisions.

Why there is conflict

Patterson defines conflict as a personal experience anchored in one’s sense of self-worth, in which there is a clash of opposing wishes. Conflict happens when individuals see things differently, he says. This idea is not new. It has been expressed previously by concepts such as “mental models” — the images and assumptions we hold as truths about ourselves and others are biased in some way. Both help to explain why two people can view the same event differently and react differently.

Road map for overcoming conflict

Although Patterson’s five skills for managing conflict — anticipate, prevent, identify, manage and resolve — are all important, what differentiates his prescription is the weight it places on deterrence.

While many organizations support initiatives, such as team-building, to help individuals better understand the strengths and perspectives of each team member — and often these programs include psychometric assessments, a methodology Patterson promoted — conflict still persists.

Is it possible these sessions routinely miss his essential second skill — strategies for effectively applying this knowledge of others in a manner that prevents conflicts from taking place?

And what about all those things we’ve learned about emotional intelligence? After all, the manner in which we react to conflict is largely primal, harkening back to fight-or-flight instincts.

Emotional intelligence is about our ability to manage and control both our own emotions and those of others, so any strategy to effectively manage conflict in the workplace should logically include it.

One way or the other, the message Patterson delivered is indisputable. However they choose to do it, organizations must learn to effectively manage conflict. It is simply not good for business.

Barbara Kofman is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on organizational effectiveness and founding principal of CareerTrails, a strategic coaching and HR Solutions organization focused on enabling individuals and organizations to resolve their career-related challenges. She has held senior roles in resourcing, strategy and outplacement, and taught at the university and college level. Barbara can be reached at bkofman@careertrails.com.

Return to top of the page

Add Comment

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *