WORKPLACE CONFLICT: A global perspectiveHofmeyr
Author: Nicola Taylor
Most people tend to ascribe negative connotations to the word “conflict”. The word actually originates from the Latin term conflictus, meaning “a striking together”, which certainly conjures images of clashes and struggles. However, conflict does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. When managed well, the time spent on conflict management can become a valuable asset for an organisation.
CPP, Inc. conducted a survey of employees in nine countries around Europe and the Americas in 2008 on various issues surrounding workplace conflict. Considering that results of this survey revealed that 85% of employees worldwide have to deal with conflict to some degree, organisations need to be able to equip their employees with the necessary skills to deal with conflict when it arises, and attempt to harness it to their advantage…
Overall, employees indicated that they spent about 2 hours a week dealing with conflict in some way, whether managing conflict or being involved in a disagreement themselves. This adds up to nearly one day a month per person that the organisation loses due to conflict! This introduces the likelihood that the costs to the organisation are not only the loss of employees and customers, but certainly time and money. However, where the outcome is positive, this could be seen as an investment.
The cost of conflict is not only to the organisation. Individuals involved in conflict have indicated that disagreements have led to personal insults and attacks, and bullying. Outcomes in the form of sickness and absenteeism, people leaving the organisation, and being fired all featured as concerns for employees. In terms of the emotional impact of conflict, most employees indicated that they felt demotivated by conflict, or it made them feel angry and frustrated. Another 19% indicated that conflict had no effect on them, and that they were used to it. It appeared that women were more likely to experience negative emotions associated with conflict than men.
The survey results indicated that the majority of respondents felt that most conflicts occur between employees in entry-level positions or front-line positions, followed by line managers and their direct reports. Very few respondents saw the bulk of conflicts happening at senior management level, but over half felt that if it was poorly managed at this level, it would have dire consequences for the organisation.
The five top causes of conflict overall were identified (in order) as: Personality clashes/warring egos, stress, heavy workloads/inadequate resources, poor leadership from the top of the organisation, and lack of honesty and openness. What is enlightening, and encouraging, is that three-quarters of respondents felt that workplace conflict resulted in some kind of positive outcome. The top three benefits or positive outcomes listed from dealing with workplace conflict were identified as: better understanding of others, improved working relationships, and better solutions to a problem or challenge.
As an organisation, there are many ways to go about harnessing the positive outcomes of workplace conflict. A good place to start would be to ensure that all your policies and procedures are checked for clarity and consistency, and get rid of any source of ambiguity about roles and functions. This is likely to reduce conflict due to misunderstanding and unclear boundaries. The survey showed that training in managing conflict can also contribute to the experience of conflict as positive. While we face rather difficult times ahead, it is imperative that organisations take an active stance in investing energy into increasing the quality of working life and working relationships. Holding individuals accountable for managing and resolving their own conflict would help towards creating a proactive attitude towards conflict resolution, and reduce the pressure on management (provided that individuals are trained or coached in handling conflict situations). Finally, organisations need to be on the lookout for “tipping points”, or to use another metaphor, “the straw that breaks the camel’s back”. By being proactive and smart about conflict managements, early-warning systems can help identify small issues that could later become insurmountable.
For the full report on workplace conflict, please contact Nicola@jvrafrica.co.za