The cost of conflict and how to address it
No peace for the wicked and no breakfast either today. At the crack of dawn I was hurtling over to Buckinghamshire to attend a one day course. This is a monthly occurrence this year, as I’m studying for yet another qualification. I know I’m a bit of a learning and development junkie but I feel a compulsion to practice what I preach!
So it’s nearly eight o’clock, and I have just got home to write my Sunday blog, over dinner rather than breakfast. Today we were inspired on the course to check out the Persian poet Rumi. So before setting to with the roast, I spent some time with my nose in the poetry book, and one line caught my imagination in particular:
“Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there”.
This insightful poet, 800 years ago, was encouraging us to look beyond the immediacy of turmoil and conflict, to greener pastures rich with possibilities for resolution and solution. So it seems fitting that my blog today explores the cost of conflict in the workplace and the potential tools for collaboration and harmony. Appropriate also because only on Friday I was speaking at a conference for senior dentists on recognising and handling different behaviours, touching also on managing conflict.
Just how far have we come in the last 800 years I wonder? In 2010 how well placed are we as human beings to be emotionally intelligent, to ‘engage brain before opening mouth and inserting foot’? What happens in demanding situations where we may feel threatened by someone with a different viewpoint, or whom we perceive is seeking to achieve something at our expense or the expense of others? How able are we to resist the power of our reptilian brain which can instantaneously trigger our fight or flight response, emotions getting in the way and propelling us into aggression or submission?
Are you aware of the cost of conflict in your organisation? Attention-grabbing headlines in the ‘People Management’ magazine in October 2008 told us:
“‘Poor conflict management skills cost UK plc billions”
The details informed us that conflict costs UK businesses £24 billion every year due to lost working days, with an average worker spending at least 2 hours a week dealing with conflict. Personality clashes and ‘warring egos’ were found to be the primary cause for conflict. Stress and heavy workloads were also acknowledged as contributory factors. In one of my client organisations I would estimate that 2 hours a day are lost to sorting out conflict!
Exactly how many lost working days was that due to conflict? 370 million. Annually. In the UK.
According to the above-cited research, causal factors included personality clashes, taking credit for others’ ideas and work, talking over people in badly run meetings, talking behind people’s backs, ignoring colleagues, personal remarks, relentless criticism, bullying, harassment, low morale and absence. Insidious, covert aggression, more prevalent within the workplace, causes untold damage.
The statistics point to in excess of 12 days a year per 100 employees being spent by HR and management in managing grievance and disciplinary cases, with an increase to 132,577 employment tribunal applications in 2006/7, up from 115,039 in the previous year.
A naive and optimistic view might be that in 2010, we would be thankful to be at work, would adopt a caring and collaborative way of working, and at least temporarily be prepared to forego the game-playing that so often wounds the colleague and maims the organisation. Not so, according to the evidence.
Let’s not forget that there are positive outcomes to conflict, with possibilities including recognition of and valuing differences, dusting down complacency, releasing energy and increasing commitment. There is a greater chance of future collaborative working and breakthroughs in thinking if we have the appropriate tools to understand and resolve conflict. The reality is that often we do not, and the risks attached range from anger, misery and a phenomenal amount of wasted energy, to bad, sometimes disastrous decisions, demotivation, resistance and downright sabotage. At the very least you will have absence rates that will affect your bottom line/value for money.
So, as leaders and managers, where should we be turning our attention in the war against conflict?!
Here are some ideas.
To minimise risk of conflict:
- Walk the talk. Don’t just say your organisation values its staff. Ensure it does it.
- Invest in tools and interventions that help people become more emotionally intelligent, self-aware, and assertive rather than aggressive.
- Have regard for the ‘psychological’ contract with employees
- Don’t go overdrawn at the employee’s ‘emotional bank account’ (Stephen Covey)
- Remember that ‘Intention’ and ‘Impact’ are different things
- There is no reality – only perception – ensure there is respect for each individual’s unique map of the world
- Communication is key. Consider method and goal, language and diversity, frequency, time available, transparency, effectiveness, VAK channels, organisational culture
- Be aware of the iceberg effect – visible symptoms, and potential underlying causes may not be the same
To manage conflict:
- Identify, address and seek to resolve conflict at as low a level as possible. It will escalate
- When dealing with conflict between two parties, be mindful of individual mental maps and fantasy ladders
- Consider individual and team interventions
- Have a toolbox of approaches including diffusion techniques and assertive and negotiating skills
- Remember! There is a range of coaching models and techniques to effectively coach around conflict issues.
Finally, returning to Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, our poet who inspired this blog today, leave the accusations, positions and protracted arguments behind. Search together for common ground and focus on the way forwards.
“Since in order to speak, one must first listen, learn to speak by listening” Rumi