Managing conflict in the workplace – The importance of early intervention

Who hasn’t struggled at some stage with challenging relationships in the workplace? It could be your boss, a subordinate or even someone from another area of your organisation that you have to work with to get a specific project completed. When you consider that most of us spend around 50% of our waking hours at our place of employment, it’s not surprising that issues with managing conflict arise (especially when so few of us get to choose our colleagues).

Before examining unhealthy workplace conflict, it’s important to realise that not all conflict is inherently negative. The ability of an organisation to promote diversity of opinion and foster constructive debate in an atmosphere of mutual respect can potentially drive performance and promote innovation.

But when conflict is badly managed, or unmanaged, the cost to productivity, employee well-being, organisational reputation and financial bottom line can be enormous. Some experts believe that unresolved conflict represents the largest reducible cost in many businesses, yet remains largely unrecognized.

There are a number of reasons why workplace conflict is handled poorly. Often people have the desire, but not the necessary skills, to navigate through challenging interpersonal relationships. Avoidance can be a common response, one that can fail spectacularly when issues finally flair-up, transforming initial difference of opinion or approach into much bigger disputes. In many cases, unresolved conflict becomes too much for one or more of the parties to manage leading to outbursts (or patterns) of unacceptable conduct.

Other typical reactions to unresolved conflict include increased absences and sick leave, staff voting with their feet and leaving, individuals engaging in ‘tactical disobedience’, the lodging of formal grievances, or in extreme cases, sabotage, compensation claims and lawsuits.

Part of the solution to counter the escalation of conflict is to place a powerful and continued emphasis on early intervention strategies. This starts with regular monitoring and dialogue around behaviours in the workplace, not waiting until acts or omissions have tipped over into the ‘problem’ category. I commonly ask organisations experiencing high levels of unhealthy conflict whether:

• they have clear and concise values that current staff have had input into creating;
• if those values are regularly and publically referenced in making important organisational decisions; and
• they are normalised through mechanisms such as discussion in arenas like team meetings (not just as ‘tick box’ interview questions for potential new hires or assessing candidates for promotion)?

I consider early intervention as a ‘golden rule’ in effectively managing conflict at work. Addressing potential disputes early in their life cycle is essential to controlling all the costs before the situation escalates beyond your ability to effectively intervene.

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