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David Liddle

The TCM Group

Chief Executive

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How to uncover hidden workplace conflict and facilitate constructive conversations

In the new world of work, traditional formal resolutions are out, and a more informal, compassionate approach is in.

A normally reliable member of your team starts turning up late for meetings and missing deadlines. A usually gregarious and sociable employee has become withdrawn and demotivated. Productivity levels in the team as a whole are going down and everyone seems disengaged and lacking in focus.

Of course personal factors could be behind this behaviour, but dig a bit deeper and you may find that unresolved disputes, which have been bubbling underneath the surface, could be the cause.

If managers want to maintain engaged and productive teams, they need to be aware of the signs that a conflict is arising

What’s going on? What are the red flags managers should look out for so they can nip hidden conflict in the bud and maintain happy and harmonious teams?

The cost of conflict

A recent Acas report, Estimating The Cost Of Conflict, suggests that almost 10 million people experience conflict at work – with over half suffering from stress, anxiety or depression as a result. The cost, both human and financial, is huge, adding up to £28.5 billion – that’s the equivalent of more than £1,000 per employee, per year.

Part of the problem is that employees often don’t disclose what they are going through. At least one in five keep the conflict under their hat, choosing to hide it from their manager or HR. They suffer in silence, becoming anxious and distressed, struggling to sleep, and dreading coming into work, where they spend their time unable to concentrate and going through the motions. Typically, they go off sick, with Acas estimating just under 900,000 employees take time off work as a direct result of conflict each year.

The implications for employee wellbeing are clear, but there is a huge knock-on effect on productivity too. Managers spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with issues and dragging people through damaging and divisive disciplinary and grievance procedures, which often serve to make the situation worse.

Colleagues who are bystanders become distressed by what they see happening to their peers, losing motivation and often choosing to head out of the door before the toxic atmosphere starts to get to them too.

A post-pandemic surge

As restrictions lift and organisations prepare to return to the ‘new normal’, there is enormous potential for workplace conflict – which to some degree has been suppressed during the pandemic – to increase. Some employees will be nervous about coming back into the physical workplace and may react irrationally to situations. Others may struggle to adapt to the challenges of hybrid working, or to changes to roles and responsibilities that have become necessary over the past year. ‘Political’ issues have the potential to cause arguments too, with employees potentially split either side of the vaccine camp or disagreeing about the way the pandemic has been handled.

If managers want to maintain engaged and productive teams, they need to be aware of the signs that a conflict is arising, so that they can step in before it’s too late.

The conflict lifecycle

In my first book, Managing Conflict, I identified three stages to workplace conflict. This is how to recognise them – and how to react at each stage:

The pre-conflict phase

This is when some of the early signs that people are on the verge of a fall-out with their colleagues or manager start to emerge. Maybe they are not as engaged with their colleagues as they previously have been, are less co-operative than normal and present in body but not in spirit. It’s becoming apparent that something is not right.

At this stage, managers need to be curious about what is going on and engage in conversations with their people. It’s about taking the time to enquire, listen, and really hear what employees are saying. This can be difficult when managers are busy and under pressure themselves, but showing empathy and working together with employees to find creative solutions to whatever is going on can help to restore good working relationships and stop conflict in its tracks.

The conflict phase

This is when issues that have been niggling under the surface have gone unnoticed and have boiled over into quarrels and disputes. You may start to see snide comments, complaints or opposing ‘camps’ forming around colleagues. There may even be very public, stand-up rows.

At this stage, managers need to intervene and try and facilitate a conversation between the people concerned. It’s about creating a quiet, safe space where people can come together to share their thoughts and concerns.

The key to facilitating a conversation successfully is to establish some clear ground rules around being respectful, listening to each other and not discussing anything that is said outside of the meeting. Once both parties have agreed to this, the best approach is to let one person speak while the other listens, and vice versa, so that both employees feel they have had the chance to speak and be heard.

The manager’s role is then to surely but slowly move the conversation from the past to the present and the future – and to help people start thinking about what needs to change so they can resolve the situation and get back on track.

The aftermath

This phase provides the opportunity for managers to think about what has happened, what they can learn from it, and how they might better manage conflict in their team going forward.

The manager’s role is to be calm, compassionate and caring and to help the team draw a line in the sand, forgive and forget and move forward. If managers can role model caring, compassionate behaviour and create a culture where people know they will be treated fairly and equitably, it will help to develop supportive, cohesive teams.

When it comes to managing conflict at work, we need to shift away from costly and time-consuming formal processes towards these informal-first, resolution-focused approaches. Recent research from both Acas and the CIPD has highlighted that the management norms of extensive inaction or expensive overreaction are woefully ineffective, costly, and damaging. Making sure managers are equipped with the skills to facilitate constructive, compassionate conversations is essential for maximising productivity and effectiveness as organisations look to build back better.

Interested in this topic? Read Conflict management: why managers must stop burying their heads in the sand.

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David Liddle

Chief Executive

Read more from David Liddle

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