Building conflict-competent workplaces

Well-managed conflict can result in innovative solutions, collaborative problem-solving
By Cinnie Noble
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/11/2017
It is optimum to take a systemic approach to building conflict-competent organizations on the basis that conflict is normal and inevitable. Credit: fizkes (Shutterstock)

Conflict can be defined as “any situation in which interdependent people have or perceive incompatible interests, goals, principles or feelings.” Interdependence is the operative word here, and an important consideration in developing a corporate culture that understands workplace dynamics and the inevitability of conflict.

One important reality to consider is that all leaders and employees want and need to rely on one another. However, team members do not always get along — not all employees respect their bosses, nor do all bosses respect their direct reports.

For a range of reasons, some staff do not fit into their team and its dynamics; employees rail against policies that have an adverse impact on them and their workload; and people are named to leadership positions without conflict competency.

Another important reality is the inability of leaders and staff to effectively manage conflict, which negatively affects the health and well-being of many people beyond the immediate parties to a dispute — creating a work environment that is toxic and fraught with problems.

Contributing to such problems and their escalation is the fact that many workplaces choose avoidance as a first response. This results in employers having to react too late in the trajectory that ensues, and to face the financial and other costs that occur.

For instance, consider the high price to train new staff to replace those who leave as a consequence of poorly managed conflict. Other expensive variables include the stress and medical problems relating to conflict — leading to protracted leaves, legal expenses associated with claims of harassment and bullying, a lack of productivity and mistakes (even accidents) due to upsets that impact concentration, and the fallout of conflict-related incidents that adversely affects an organization’s reputation.

Normalizing conflict

To effectively build conflict-competent workplaces requires a shift in organizations’ mindset. This means not only choosing another response than avoidance, it requires acknowledgement that conflict is going to occur. And if it is well-managed, both the organization and its human assets will benefit. In fact, well-managed conflict can result in innovative solutions, collaborative problem-solving, and improved morale and teamwork.

One key to making this happen is establishing ways to normalize conflict — in other words, accepting and preparing for its inevitability. To do so, it is important to identify the issues that lead to organizational conflict through developmental workplace audits.

Discovering the underlying factors provides a barometer that reflects the calibre of leadership skills, job satisfaction (and therefore, productivity, commitment and loyalty) and what is needed to strengthen the foundation of the workplace.

A systemic approach

Becoming a conflict-competent organization, therefore, requires dedicated focus and investment.

A systemic approach acknowledges that the costs of rectifying the results of ill-managed conflict are undoubtedly higher than instituting mechanisms that prevent unnecessary conflict and address it effectively when it does occur.

One systemic method to achieve these objectives is to make effective conflict management a core competency. This requires concrete expectations of what that means for all staff — and providing the resources for training and coaching to support and assess these expectations.

Similarly, evaluating conflict management skills for potential leaders, and requiring that all new managers are automatically coached to strengthen their knowledge, skills and ability to manage and engage in conflict, make conflict competence an integral component of a leadership position.

Other ways to build organizational cultures of conflict competence include a requirement for regular conflict-resolution training for all staff, and performance management and difficult conversation workshops (especially when combined with ongoing coaching) for leaders.

Yet another critical way to build conflict-competent organizations is to have proactive and easily accessible processes in place — such as conflict management coaching and mediation — with policies that require staff to seek such assistance before escalating their disputes.

Ensuring HR professionals are trained to provide such techniques is necessary, as well as training managers to do so. In addition to learning to effectively use these techniques, training in group facilitation skills helps leaders to model and build their own individual conflict competence.

Further, some organizations develop programs in which peers learn to coach or mediate co-workers to help them find their way through conflict. Also, external practitioners can provide coaching and mediation support.

It is optimum to take a systemic approach to building conflict-competent organizations on the basis that conflict is normal and inevitable. Though that might not be considered financially realistic, that argument does not reconcile with the high cost of attrition, absenteeism due to medical and stress leave, and expensive litigation — all of which are often the outcomes of poorly managed conflict.

Rather, taking a systemic approach to prevent and address unnecessary conflict means building a system that provides both proactive and reactive mechanisms. Ultimately, it’s about prioritizing the health and well-being of employees — and doing so with a strong commitment to maintaining an environment where people are best able to thrive and support the organizational mission.

Cinnie Noble is a certified coach, author, mediator and senior partner at CINERGY Coaching in Toronto. For more information, visit

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