Conflict is a natural by-product of different people all being in the same space.
For this reason, workplaces are a prime breeding ground for conflict. Research even shows that the more diverse a workplace is, the more likely there is to be disagreement. But disagreement isn’t always a negative thing.
Differing opinions, perspectives, and ways of thinking are often incremental to the best decision-making and most fruitful outcomes. That’s right – conflict can be a good thing, but only when managed well by leaders in an organisation.
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What is conflict?
Conflict is defined as a serious disagreement whereby two parties are incompatible with one another. In the workplace, conflict can often be subjective. Something that might offend or frustrate one type of person, won’t get on the nerves of another. This is because workplaces are communities built of very different types of people, some of whom wouldn’t have ever encountered one another otherwise.
“Everyone is different and won’t always get along with each other.” says Paul Holcroft, Managing Director at Croner. “That’s human nature. But issues can become amplified when people, who have likely not chosen to work together, find themselves spending more time with colleagues than they do with family and friends.
“People may have differing views on what is happening in the world or may disagree on how best to complete a project that they are having to work on together. Throw into the mix pressures of having to work to deadlines and tensions can soon bubble over.”
Can conflict ever be a good thing?
The word conflict is often associated with negativity. But if constructive, opposing ideas and opinions can lead to more creative decision making. Conflict can also lead to team relationships becoming stronger. In romantic relationships, couples often tell stories of how their bond became stronger, closer and less breakable when faced with adversity after an argument. The same goes for working relationships – when colleagues argue, there can be an opportunity for stronger bonds to be built.
Holcroft continues: “Differences of opinion are always going to happen, especially when people from a variety of backgrounds each with their own lived experiences, are working together. And healthy discussion is a good way to talk through ideas, share concerns and issues and learn from others. But crossing the line from healthy debate and respectful disagreement into conflict is never a good thing.
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“It’s important to learn how to accept a decision that you may not agree with, as well as maintain good working relationships with people you may fundamentally differ from or not choose to spend time with outside work. People can agree to disagree whilst still respecting other’s viewpoints.”
How can managers effectively manage conflict in the workplace?
From a manager’s perspective, drilling home the notion of a common goal can allow team members to recognise they are striving towards the same thing, even when disagreeing. Moreover, encouraging inclusivity, non-judgement and being able to listen to alternative opinions can foster a more inclusive and dynamic company culture.
“Being able to effectively manage conflict in the workplace is key for employers," continues Holcroft. "A good place to start is ensuring that there are policies and training in place clearly setting out to everyone what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in your organisation. All employees should be aware of what the potential repercussions might be if there is any breach of these expectations.
“If, however, conflict does ensue, employers should ensure that full investigations and disciplinary processes are followed, where appropriate, so that any at-fault employees do not get away scot-free.
“Depending upon what the conflict is about, it may be more appropriate for mediation, if all parties agree. This might enable employees to work through the issues, clear the air and work out how they can work together going forwards.”
Ultimately, conflict doesn’t always have to be a negative thing in the workplace. If managed correctly, leaders can utilise it to make their workforce more creative, strong, and adept to dealing with external forces. From a manager’s perspective, this involves being a capable leader able to tread the line of welcoming differing perspectives but not letting disagreement go too far, whilst knowing when disciplinaries are needed.