How to use workplace conflict to your advantage

But beware the festering feud.

by David Liddle
Last Updated: 28 Feb 2020

Conflict is an inevitable part of working life - personality clashes between colleagues, direct reports falling out with their managers, disagreements around how projects should be run or budgets allocated.

There’s a tendency to think that if you ignore these workplace spats, they will go away. The reality, of course, is that never happens.

If bad feeling is left to fester, what started out as a niggling argument can soon escalate into a full-scale meltdown. For the people involved, it’s a miserable experience. They feel anxious about going into work, it plays on their mind when they get home and they can’t sleep, they become increasingly stressed, and often go off sick.

It’s not great for the people surrounding the warring colleagues either.  Atmospheres become tense and constrained, everyone feels like they are treading on eggshells, engagement takes a nose-dive and productivity suffers.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Equipped with the right skills, managers can spot the signs of conflict arising, get to the root of what’s gone wrong and facilitate the open, honest conversations necessary to restore peace and harmony.  

It’s a skill-set that’s sadly lacking in organisations, where in the face of a dispute, a manager’s first port of call is often the formal disciplinary and grievance or bullying and harassment policy – divisive processes that often plunge people into even more adversarial situations and make it unlikely that any form of working relationship can ever be restored. 

What we often overlook is that conflict doesn’t have to be toxic – and in fact, if managed well, it can be the manager’s friend.

Good conflict

Healthy debate between colleagues is the lifeblood of innovation and a key driver of growth and productivity.  

The ability to engage in robust but respectful discussions is what enables teams to generate new ideas and insights. A willingness to stop pointing the finger of blame when things go wrong, and instead to have a constructive discussion, is how we learn from our mistakes and do better next time.

Difficult conversations, facilitated well, are the key to helping people with different perspectives find common ground and identify potential for collaboration. People with varying viewpoints, beliefs and experiences will generally surpass what any group of like-minded colleagues will be able to achieve.

But organisations will only reap the benefits if they equip managers with the courage, confidence and competence to manage open, honest and constructive dialogue in their teams.

What does this take? First of all, managers need to get much better at understanding the difference between normal, healthy debate and damaging, dysfunctional disputes – so that they can stop the first tipping over into the second.

They need to set the ground rules for the people they lead, making it clear that occasional clashes of opinions, values and goals are a normal part of working with colleagues, and often clients.

Their role is to create a safe space, where people can put forward differing perspectives without fear of being shouted down, and where colleagues listen to each other with curiosity, empathy and respect.

And they need to make it clear that any conflicts that do arise will be resolved in a compassionate and collaborative manner, shifting people away from unhelpful ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ mindsets, towards win-win solutions where people feel they have been heard and their needs have been met.

If organisations want to get the best out of their people and get fit for the challenges of the future workplace, they need to help people learn how to ‘disagree well’ at work.

David Liddle is CEO of conflict management consultancy The TCM Group, and author of ‘Managing Conflict: A Practical Guide to Resolution in the Workplace’ (CIPD/Kogan Page)

Image credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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