Fight the good fight

18 February 2015 -


It’s time we stop trying to avoid conflict and confrontation. A little discord can improve management styles

Farah Dib

“I’m not asking you to sleep with the guy. Just get on with him well enough to do a good job.” When Patrick Dunne, chairman of youth charity Leap and former 3i communications director, was told this by his first boss it may have seemed like little consolation in a difficult situation. But, years later, he is himself championing this approach. “Conflict is an inevitable part of working life,” says Dunne. “It’s okay not to like someone; you can still have a good professional relationship.” And it is more than that: conflict can help us thrive.

From sneers, shunning and harmless bickering to systematic bullying and, in extreme cases, physical violence, conflict in the workplace can turn nasty very quickly. And, if left unaddressed, it can lead to the breakdown of the business; a challenge for all regardless of management style. Murray Steele, who spent 31 years as senior lecturer at Cranfield University School of Management, is apprehensive about ignoring conflict. “We British move heaven and earth to avoid it and find it very uncomfortable,” he says. And surveys seem to suggest that this national stereotype is well-founded. Research by business publisher CPP in 2008 on 5,000 workers in nine countries in Europe and the Americas found a higher rate of anger and frustration with workplace conflict in the UK than the other nations surveyed. Two-thirds of UK employees said they felt this way, while the figure is 57% across the survey as a whole. And bottling it all up is proving costly for UK businesses. Reluctance to confront problems in the workplace results in more sick leave, triggered by the stressful effects of suppressing one’s emotions. According to a survey by Healthy Companies International, 41% of employees think their boss does not manage workplace conflicts well.

Situation normal

We are not about to outsmart nature. In the average office, conflict is the rule rather than exception. CPP found that the vast majority of employees, more than 85%, have to deal with conflict in their working lives.

Dunne’s charity, Leap, trains troubled young people – many of whom are offenders or at risk of being so – to run workshops on conflict management at major companies. Through this extraordinary work, he has made some interesting discoveries. “Rehabilitated young offenders and business leaders have a lot in common,” he says. “Many CEOs have high anxiety and high confidence at the same time. Many are also frustrated with controls around them and have a very high conviction that they’re right, just like the young people I work with.”

It’s not hard to see why the characteristics Dunne describes become problematic in a high-pressure work environment. Particularly di.cult to tackle is when colleagues, managers and board members are negotiating different visions. “When we cannot agree on strategic issues and on where we see the business going, we have real problems,” he says. And Steele agrees with him. “There are a number of classic workplace conflicts,” he says. “Sometimes it’s the result of manipulative people creating conflict for the sake of proving superiority. This is conflict for conflict’s sake – and this is never beneficial for the organisation.

“But conflict can also be essential when the organisation is in crisis and something needs to be resolved. And then of course there are clashes because of natural personality differences and structural conflicts because people want to promote themselves and their team rather than the whole company.”

Division dividend

“Business is driven by conflict,” Dunne says. “You want to buy something off me as cheaply as possibly, and I want to sell it to you for as much as possible.” Indeed, where conflict exists, it is a strong indication that there is deep commitment to common goals and an interest in finding the best solution within the organisation. “An open company culture that allows people to challenge and question process, strategy and results will produce better results and higher-quality decisions,” Dunne adds. It seems hard to argue with his logic, but when does conflict go from being an indication of a healthy company culture to undermining the effectiveness of the organization and halting productivity?

“Think of the office as a triangle,” says Dunne. “Internally everyone should be working towards the same goal at the top of the triangle, but the routes people take there can be different. If the structure is more of a circle where different forces are pulling in opposite directions, you won’t get the same good results. Equally, it’s unlikely a decision taken by a single person will resonate with the workforce.” Steele has also observed the effect of different organisational structures on the level of conflict, and found that there is no simple answer. “Initially, it may seem a hierarchical structure would be more prone to conflict, but uncertainty on who to report to can also be a breeding ground for disagreement,” he says.

Research into team performance has found that teams where everyone quickly agrees make worse decisions. Psychologists refer to this as “groupthink” – where members in a group are so concerned with harmony and conformity that the decisions made suffer from being poorly considered. Rather, research points towards conflict, managed effectively, being a catalyst for positive change. CPP’s study shows that when conflict is channeled through the right tools and expertise, the results are positive. Among all surveyed, roughly three-quarters (76%) reported positive outcomes from conflict, such as better understanding for others, a better solution to a problem, or innovation.

How to do it right

If you do not get on with your boss, you are less likely to progress and it will affect your performance. As a boss, if you do not have a good relationship with the people you work with, they are not going to respect you to the same degree, or work as hard for you. It seems there is no excuse for not dealing with conflict. And it is both parties’ responsibility. “You might not be responsible for causing it, but you can play a part in solving it,” Dunne says. And there are well-researched practical solutions that can help businesses harness conflict. Dunne and Steele point to a conflict resolution model developed by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann in 1974, which still forms the basis of expert advice for understanding and dealing with conflict. It comprised five strategies: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding and accommodating. Dunne advocates trying to understand the other person’s point of view and what might lead them to think the way they do. “Ask yourself what’s causing the conflict and what the red flags are for the other person,” he says. “A lot of people have a couple of dominant, natural approaches to conflict. Question this. If you can recognise the situation you are in, you can pick the right strategy to deal with it. Sometimes it is better to avoid a conflict – choose your battles – while other times a compromise might be the right thing to do.”

And when conflict is too far gone, an independent mediator might be able to help. If you have a trusted third party that can give honest feedback you are more likely to make progress. “We need to take more time to reflect, and often we need a catalyst to make us consider what we’re doing wrong,” Dunne says. And this is where he believes rehabilitated young offenders can help. “You almost have to trick businesspeople to open up,” Dunne tells me. “It’s the same with young people and offenders: they’re closed and withdrawn and you have to try to find the source of the conflict and deal with it.”

Of course, it is also worth remembering that some conflicts simply cannot be resolved. “Sometimes relationships break down to a point where the only solution is for one of the parties to go,” Steele says. And Dunne agrees. Yet in many cases, conflict can be handled – even harnessed. “We need to learn how to respond rather than react,” says Dunne. “Accepting that conflict is a natural part of the workplace and realising its potential for bringing about change is the first step.”

Paying the price for conflict avoidance

Why tackling workplace problems head on is far more economical than bottling them up...

Most of us shy away from confrontation, but doing so could be costly. In addition to added workplace stress, lower job motivation and reduced decision-making, the Confederation of British Industry estimates that leaving the problem unaddressed costs UK business £33bn per year. It has also found that conflict resolution is taking up 20% of leadership time and adding up to a loss of more than 370 million working days a year. In 2010, the BBC paid out almost £600,000 for employment tribunal claims. It is clear that the issue is pressing, yet it remains low down on many companies’ priority lists. According to a survey by CPP in 2008 on 5,000 workers, less than half (44%) of all those questioned had received training in how to manage workplace conflict.

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