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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Posted by sean
Published on 26 February 2020

conflict at work


Conflict in the workplace happens. Research shows that the overwhelming majority, 85% of workers, deal with conflict of some kind on a regular basis and that its cost is high. One study found that US workers spent nearly three hours a week embroiled in some conflict, which equated to $359 billion of paid time or 385 million workdays. And that’s replicated more or less and pro-rata worldwide. But the real issue is not only the conflict; an equal issue is how it’s handled. The healthiest work environment will always have an element of conflict of some kind, merely because people are different, have different priorities, different mindsets and therefore differing points of view.

If there’s no overt conflict, employees are 100% hiding real thoughts and feelings. Such a situation will eventually explode if there’s no outlet. Hidden, denied or ignored conflict festers and grows into resentment over time. The longer that festers, the more difficult it is to manage. Neglected conflict leads to absenteeism, stress, permanent biases, poor output, petty chaos, rifts in the organisation and unnecessary staff turnover. Conflict of all kinds can break or diminish companies: Maplin, Thomas Cook, Eastern Airlines, Pan Am, Enron, Lehman Brothers, Nokia, Kodak, Blockbuster, Woolworth, Foot Locker and so on.

Something like 25% of workers worldwide admit that conflict avoidance leads to absenteeism or illness and over 30% state that it has led to leaving a business. Conflict leads to zero creativity, diminished productivity, and decreased collaboration. One study found that 10% of employees admit that conflict has led to the total failure of a project.

For any successful organisation, it must have effective conflict management strategies in place. Leadership must be ready to deal with conflict. It’s no good wringing your hands once something has blown up. The benefits of meeting conflict far outweigh avoiding it. Here’s heartening news: in an international study, 75% of staff interviewed identified a positive outcome when a conflict was handled well.

Xerox Corporation has always relied on innovation to drive growth. A few years ago, the company was working on a breakthrough product that combined two different technologies: a new solid-ink system and existing copier technology. The project got a year behind schedule, in part because of conflict between the key teams representing the two technologies – a common source of company conflict everywhere. All kinds of factors caused the conflict: jealousies, rivalry, different salaries for ostensibly doing the same job, line management issues, union disagreements with various working practices.

Management identified (although it might have been deduced much earlier) that both teams were imbalanced in their team roles, i.e. both had an overabundance of some roles and gaps in others. Because of these imbalances, neither team was productive and the differences in working styles practically guaranteed conflict between the groups to a point where the project stalled.

With management help, the two groups realised that, if they combined their strengths, they could create a well-balanced single team. So, the groups worked through their differences, developed a better understanding of each other’s dynamics and created ground rules that helped them communicate in ways that would avoid future problems.

Xerox credits this work with speeding up the release-to-market of their then-new ColorQube printer. The improved collaboration also resulted in significantly fewer post-launch problems compared with other product launches. The point is that the solution here wasn’t at all complicated and that’s at the core of most conflict problems – that the resolution is simple. However, many businesses simply do nothing at all to consider the what-ifs of a situation before problems surface or they have the view that there’s only one way of doing something right.

In the UK, Royal Mail and two trades unions jointly appointed external mediators to help resolve issues and establish fairness in the workplace at an early stage. The business, employing some 150,000 people and its trade unions agreed to appoint an independent mediation partner to help solve a rash of bullying at various levels throughout the organisation.

This was the first time that the business and its trade unions had jointly employed an external mediation team to help resolve issues and ensure that all employees were treated fairly and with respect. What resulted was an informal resolution process that enhanced a new culture of mutual trust and fairness in the workplace. Again, not rocket science and the business was the first to say that not everything works brilliantly yet, but it’s more than just a start and it’s doing well.

BT is one of the world’s leading communications services companies, serving the needs of customers in the UK and in more than 170 countries worldwide. Their main activities include the provision of fixed-line services, broadband, mobile and TV products as well as networked IT services. In 2008 the organisation decided to try mediation as a means of resolving workplace and external onsite issues. Internal trainers were tutored as mediators in the BT retail section which is the consumer customer service and sales arm of BT and has around 18,000 employees and 20 million customers.

During the pilot period, mediation was used in over 100 grievances and disputes. BT Retail reported a successful resolution in over 95% of cases which in return delivered a reported saving of more than £200,000. BT reported an ROI in excess of 1000 per cent. A modest start but proactive start. And that’s the idea. The more that any business can do to stop conflict from even peeping its head above the parapet, the better. Action beforehand makes more sense than having to react afterwards.

Amazon may be one of the world’s most successful online retailers, but the company hit the headlines not so long ago due to the allegations of its surprising and tough approach to employee relations with senior management. A media report implied that Jeff Bezos believed that harmony was often overvalued in the workplace – that it could stifle honest critique and encourage praise for flawed ideas.

The report claimed that Amazon regularly instructed its staff to disagree with anything and commit to ripping into colleagues’ ideas - with feedback that could be blunt to the point of rudeness and a painful attack. Whether this is true or even a true reflection of Amazon’s culture or not, it does raise the question of what potential impact such a culture could have on the long-term health of its workforce. It must be said that there have been a number of media reports echoing the less than collaborative behaviour of Amazon staff and the attitude of management towards staff and working practices. Yes, Amazon is huge. Yes, it will remain huge. But companies like Pan Am said that as well, as did shareholders and other external audiences.

The combination of the Amazon story and the impact of work-related stress means that there are important questions that all organisations should ask themselves. What type of management culture do we foster where we work? What informal conflict management techniques do we offer to foster healthy relationships? What are we doing to enable people at work to enjoy their jobs and thrive, both psychologically and physically?

Research published by Harvard and Stanford Business Schools suggests that health problems associated with job-related anxiety account for more deaths each year in the US than Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes. It is likely that the same is true in the UK and elsewhere too.

Considering how much time most of us spend at work, it’s essential that organisations take their employees’ well-being seriously. Some stress and conflict are normal in life - at work and outside it - and a totally stress-free workplace is not realistically achievable.

However, there is a myriad of workplace stress points that can be identified early and these stress points are those that can lead to a conflict of some kind. They will have a negative impact on employee wellbeing and the success of the business. These range from job insecurity to draconian working hours, increasingly demanding tasks in unreasonable timescales and unhealthy workplace relations that manifest themselves in real or perceived negative behaviours such as bullying, harassment and discrimination. This isn’t a definitive list either.

The biggest issue worldwide is that individual employees, groups, sections or teams don’t feel fairly treated or valued at work or they don’t feel properly managed or they don’t feel that they have a voice; they feel that they’re treated with little empathy or respect.

This, along with possible prejudice or bias, causes low self-esteem, ill-health, a lack of motivation and low morale. It results in a work environment that is not harmonious, productive or healthy. Not only does this negatively impact employees at the individual level, but it also impacts the wider company community and the company’s reputation, efficiency and, subsequently, bottom line. Not forgetting trust.

Virgin follows a management style based on trust and support. Managers are given a great degree of freedom to do what they deem necessary and good for the growth of their project and the Virgin group. Time is allowed for that and it’s encouraged. For any new project, managers are obliged to look carefully for any area of possible conflict.

Writer and former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, Kate White, understood conflict in the workplace. When one employee lacks seniority over another, a power struggle can sometimes occur. Her view is that it’s essential to find common ground and talk about what aspects on which you and they agree. Then she recommends working out if there’s one choice to move forwards that appeals to all parties, including you. Choosing just one choice at a time helps focus. If there are multiple issues, tackle one at a time. Again, not hard in principle, but not that easy in practice and it requires trained skill, patience and an ability to listen. It’s not helped, of course, if one party is obstreperous or difficult.

Consider the number of now-famous entrepreneurs who made a reputation for themselves despite being difficult or abrasive. It’s not hard to imagine why these leaders prefer -- even require - that loyal, borderline sycophants surround them. Fear is a great driver in this scenario, and, again, it’s an old-fashioned way of management and usually results in some breach or departure. In reality, however, businesses tend to perform better when their entrepreneur-founders or senior executives recruit people who typically disagree with them or at least willingly voice a dissenting opinion. The most beneficial aspect of critical thinking is that conflict naturally encourages progress, as described by many business leaders. Disagreements force you as a leader or manager to confront the weaknesses of your ideas; otherwise, those weaknesses remain unchecked.

Steve Jobs often demanded the inclusion of impossible features in products or impossible deadlines to achieve some key market advantage, and they say that he frequently lost his patience with employees who couldn’t meet those expectations. This kind of stubbornness, allowed to run rampant, is also a weakness; it may lead businesses to waste time on bad ideas or experience disappointment when the impossible goal fails. Having employees who disagree with you allows your stubbornness to be challenged when appropriate. 

If six out of seven people agree with the strategy, coax out the divergent view. Go mining for conflict. When a difficult decision is required, ask all team members to contribute their opinions and explore the disagreements thoroughly. If someone engaged with the debate is becoming uncomfortable with the level of discord, interrupt the discussion and remind everyone that this is a necessary part of the process. Do anything to drain fear. Do anything to provoke ideas. Many successful people establish a goodwill bank account, Richard Branson for one. Conflicts take place within the context of relationships. When people feel warmly toward each other, they can weather the tension of disagreement without permanently hurting their relationship. If they view each other with suspicion, however, even minor skirmishes can escalate into all-out battles.

Every person is susceptible to cognitive biases, but those biases are by-products of our genetics, history and personal beliefs – our mindsets. If you think of mindsets with blindspots, you can almost guarantee that employees who frequently disagree with you have different perspectives from you. That’s not a bad thing, of course, if someone has a seriously negative mindset. In everyday dialogue, when we want to achieve something within the field of conflict, we compensate for one another’s cognitive limitations and come closer to seeing the whole truth of a given problem.

Do you think that you’re stubborn? Many stubborn people don’t think of themselves as stubborn but they are. If they think that they are stubborn, then they often believe that it’s fine in any scenario, i.e. they think that submission is a weakness. It isn’t. Business leaders are notoriously stubborn. They have a vision for what they want their company or product to be, and they aren’t willing to sacrifice it. GE’s Jack Welch, Facebook’s Sheryl Sanberg, Disney’s BobIger, Tesla’s Elon Musk, General Motors’ Mary Barra, Apple’s Steve Jobs, Alibaba’s Jack Ma and many others are or were notoriously stubborn. Sometimes that worked for them, but often it did not.

This kind of stubbornness, allowed to run rampant, is also a weakness; it may lead businesses to waste time on bad ideas or experience disappointment when an impossible goal isn’t met. Having colleagues who disagree with you allows your stubbornness to be challenged when appropriate.

You can practically guarantee that your employees or colleagues will disagree with you at least from time to time. That’s healthy. The real question is whether they’re going to express that disagreement openly and productively or keep it to themselves and mutter behind your back. Employees who openly disagree with you hope that their dispute won’t become a subject of retaliation or unpleasant consequences; likewise, you, as leader, supervisor or manager, can trust that these employees won’t withhold their valid perspectives.

An open atmosphere makes employees feel more comfortable and respected and gives managers and leaders the confidence that their teams aren’t just paying them lip service. Alas, though, openness isn’t a widespread feature of modern workplaces. In a recent UK and US survey, only 65% of workers at various levels said they believed they could express a dissenting or unpopular opinion at work without any negative consequences. Ultimately, this stifles the exchange of ideas in a work environment and leads to resentment and conflict.

The challenge for a leader or manager is to create an environment that allows for constructive disagreements without jeopardising your or others’ leadership - or the respect of your employees. How? Well, not all dissenting opinions are valuable. Try to build a team full of experts, critical thinkers and professionals capable of constructing meaningful counterarguments for dilemmas in their respective fields.

In addition, and whenever possible, also allow the conversational space necessary for employees to voice their opinions. It’s what many firms do now, including the likes of British Airways, Vodafone and Mercedes Benz. If you go out of your way to ask for individual opinions, employees will be far more likely to share them. If they share opinions early, conflict is still possible but less probable.

Of course, growth often leads to conflict - whether that’s in a family business or a company merging with another. Where would Disney be without Pixar or J.P. Morgan without Chase? But also look at Daimler Benz and Chrysler, Sears and Kmart, AOL and Time Warner, Quaker and Snapple.

Most businesses have a different culture from another, even if the other is in the same industry. Language differences, working practices, marketing styles, ad spend, job titles, structures, union relationships, pay differentials and so on – all tough to sort and agree upon. Businesses that find themselves needing or wanting to grow may struggle to accept a new status quo. There are rarely any equal mergers. One party will have more clout than the other. One party’s CEO will usually be the new CEO. Rivalries and jealousies are rife.  Even larger businesses like KPMG, which has many partners, will suffer conflicts over power and decision-making. People find that their management control lines are blurred, or they make them confused.

As firms grow, they tend to become more complex in structure and operations, so the key then is to make sure that there are clear lines of communication. There’s nothing new in this, and communication is the bedrock for more or less everything everywhere. If people are talking openly and getting disagreements, agreements, solutions and resolutions out into the open, the likelihood of conflict will never disappear but will diminish. We are all people, and all people are different with different mindsets, different ambitions and different issues. However, if we talk openly, the conflict will be easier to manage.

Conflict is an inevitable - and crucial - part of every business. Handled well, the clash of ideas, claims, interests and preferences can be a positive force, exposing the weaknesses of positions and leading to creativity, innovative problem-solving and growth. Instead of me against you, it becomes us against a problem. It becomes not a rock nor a hard place.

It takes character to find that level of courage and then to express it so succinctly. To make this statement with such clarity and determination sent a shiver through the classroom. We have all had our share of ups and downs. When we are deep into shocking negativity, it's good to know that we're only ever a thought away from the light.



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