The Human Cost of Workplace Conflict

by Guest Expert

Is conflict a ‘dirty' word in your organisation? Is it the ‘elephant in the room' that no-one wants to talk about? Or is it something to be explored and understood? I invite you to take 20 seconds to write down all the words or phrases you associate with the word ‘conflict'.

A similar task set in training sessions invariably produces negatives, such as argument, stress, and fight, or with neutral words like misunderstanding and disagreement. It commonly takes a little encouragement for participants to come up with more positive associations, such as resolution, opportunity, and development.

Now take a look at the list that you wrote - it will tell you something about your own approach to conflict. If it contains mostly negatives, this suggests that you feel uncomfortable around conflict, you perceive it as a threat, and avoid it wherever possible. If half or more of your list is positives or neutrals, you probably feel reasonably comfortable around conflict, and see it as an opportunity for learning and growth.

Our behaviours are often learned in the context of the family or previous workplaces, so it may also be worth taking a moment to think about what events have influenced your attitude towards conflict. When there was conflict in the home, how was it dealt with?

At times when issues arose in previous workplaces, what processes were followed? Were the situations actually resolved or just managed?

Whether the focus is on a child or teenager at home, or an employee in the workplace, we all need to process the what, why and how before our behaviour can evolve:

  • What? - The specific negative behaviour needs to be highlighted;
  • Why? - Clear reasons must be given for change; and 
  • How? - Behavioural expectations need to be discussed.

So what exactly are the costs of not following this evolution process, and of allowing conflict to fester in the workplace? To find the answer, you can conduct a conflict audit in your own organisation. Here are seven questions to get you started:

  • How much time each week do you, your managers & your Human Resources team spend trying to prevent, manage or resolve conflicts?
  • What is the cost of lost productivity due to stress-related illnesses and absenteeism? 
  • What opportunities have been missed due to conflict?
  • How much employee time is spent on gossip, rumours, and reduced co-operation as a result of conflict?
  • How has conflict affected staff morale and motivation?
  • How many conflicts recur because they are never fully resolved?
  • How are negative conflict behaviours rewarded?

(Adapted from Cloke & Goldsmith Resolving Conflicts at Work )

If you wish to get a full picture, invite colleagues from all areas of the organisation to participate in this exercise. Be prepared, however, for what you might find, as once something has been discovered it becomes much more difficult to ignore. Commitment is required from everyone, including you, as your own behaviour may also be put under the spotlight.

What could possibly be so beneficial about this Conflict Evolution process that would motivate managers and co-workers to want to follow through? Apart from the obvious substantial reduction in the human and organisational costs which were discovered through the audit, the greatest benefit is that you and your colleagues are co-creating a much more appealing place to work. Other benefits speak for themselves:

  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced staff turnover
  • Improved communication and relationships
  • Better team-building skills
  • Reduced stress
  • Increased energy
  • A more positive approach to conflict

Good management practice demands a healthy and constructive approach to resolving conflict, and this can be achieved by following the Conflict Evolution process.

In the next 7 articles in this series, we will look at each of the 3 areas - What, Why, How - in greater detail, and attempt to apply the same principles to ourselves as they are applied to others.

Fiona White
Mediator and Conflict Coach

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