Previous Article Next Article While differences of opinion in the workplace can bestimulating and constructive, outright conflict is not. Even smallmisunderstandings can lead to the sparring partners getting the gloves on.Advice is given on how to resolve such disputes. By Walter Brennan Brian Johnson was stunned to discover that a letter had been written to hismanager accusing him of being impossible to work with. Brian was a successfulsurgeon, and a highly talented professional who had, in his words,”forgotten more than any of these pampered junior staff would everknow”. The problem now though, was that no-one would speak to him. “Theatmosphere was awful,” said Brian. “We would come to work, scrub up,operate and finish with hardly a word being said.” The situation lasted for more than two months, before a letter was sent andhe was summoned to explain the situation. Brian was advised to “get agrip” of the situation before it became public knowledge. He still feelsthe sense of betrayal, anger and hurt from this situation even two years later,although he no longer works in the same hospital. “Why couldn’t my colleagues have talked to me about the problemsfirst?” he asks. “Why did they go behind my back? Why did they try todestroy me?” Conflict is a way of life. Everyone encounters it from the cradle to thezimmer frame. A participant on a course I ran recently asked me, “Whycan’t everybody be friends?” I was uncertain whether this was a questionor simply wishful thinking. Conflict left unresolved is damaging emotionally, organisationally and, ofcourse, financially. The emotional and psychological impact of conflict isconstantly rolled out: stress costs 80 million working days a year and,according to the Confederation of British Industry, that converts to £5.3bnpounds annually1. So how can we eliminate conflict? Indeed, can we or should we eliminate it? What is conflict? The Oxford Dictionary defines conflict as, “…clash, be incompatiblewith”2. Parker and Archer define it as, “A perceptual state involvingthe executive function of the organism where the immediate choices in theorganism’s repertoire, together with the outcome of these choices, are seen toinvolve incompatible motives and needs.”3 Or as Cahn prefers,”Difference or incompatibility between people.”4 However, rather than dwell upon the semantics of increasingly clinical andacademic definitions, this article is about understanding conflict and managingit in the workplace. Why does conflict happen? Maddix5 suggests that conflict is present within organisations because of: – Differences in needs, objectives and values – Differences in perceiving motives, words, actions and situations – Differing expectations of outcomes – favourable versus unfavourable – Unwillingness to work through issues, to collaborate, or to compromise What must be remembered is the fact that conflict happens not necessarilybecause party A wants to sabotage, dominate or dislike party B. Often bothparties mean well and share the same objectives. But how they achieve theseobjectives can be significantly different, prompting bemusement, anxiety,anger, frustration and resistance in others. Conflict is unhealthy when it is not addressed or where there is adetermination that one party will “win” at the expense of the otherparty. When there is unhealthy conflict, lines are metaphorically drawn andcolleagues are forced into a polarisation or an “us or them”situation. When this happens, communication breaks down and trust and mutualsupport disappear. Sadly, when there is conflict, no particular occupationalgroup or status is exempt from the corrosive damage. Case study In one case I dealt with, a fundamental breakdown in approaches to dealingwith aggressive children was sufficient for two groups of highly qualified,mature, professional educational and clinical psychologists to cease talking,co-operating and eventually sharing an office. Staff member Eileen Kearns says, “It all started one day when we werehaving what seemed to be a good old debate about approaches to aggressive childrenin educational settings and what works best. “Unfortunately, one of the senior staff was not present and wasbasically fed information that in retrospect was inaccurate and caused him(John) to believe that his professionalism and ultimately his integrity werebeing questioned by colleagues who did not have the ‘decency’ to talk to himdirectly.” John quickly changed and just stopped talking to colleagues unless he had toand then he was curt and stuck strictly to the point. Within a fortnight, the department,consisting of 11 staff, was divided between allies and supporters of John andhis school of thinking and those against. Eileen, a secretary, who was not even there on the day of the discussion,found herself being wooed and enticed into joining one group or the other. “It was awful, I was frightened to do work for one member of staff forfear of upsetting someone else. I was not allowed to be neutral. What had beena great place to work was now cold and oppressive. Colleagues who had impressedme so much with their intelligence, knowledge and professionalism were nowbehaving like children, trying to get one over the other group.” Intervention I was invited to carry out a review of the organisation’s function andbasically aim to deal with the breakdown in the function of the department.Time and resources dictated that I had six days to try to turn the situationaround. I wrote to all 11 members of staff outlining my role, brief and theexpected outcomes of the project. I also stated that I would wish to meet withas many staff as possible. I discovered that there was only one group of staff who were prepared tomeet with me to discuss issues around the breakdown of this previously verysuccessful operation. All the staff who came to meet with me were those who believed that they hadbeen snubbed by John and his “friends” and felt that they were thevictims in the situation. One by one they talked about their initial puzzlementand eventual resentment towards John for what was happening. “We were now not speaking and therefore not sharing vitalinformation,” one psychologist told me. Based upon the information provided, which thankfully was supplied candidlywithout any fear of breach of confidentiality, I was able to gain a goodpicture of what had happened. Each informant chose to meet me unaccompanied byany representative, formal or informal. Suddenly the other group of staff expressed a wish to meet me and provided asignificantly different picture of events from the first group. It occurred to me, as the saying goes, that there are three sides to anystory: your side, my side and the truth. I recognised I was not going to get tothe truth. I just wanted to get the staff to try and work togetherprofessionally once more. The next stage was to highlight the benefits of effective teamwork and,meeting with each team separately, I facilitated a day of core values to whichemployees can expect to be entitled. I also highlighted what the organisationcan expect from employees and, most importantly, what standards of conductshould exist between employees. I also spelt out the bottom line: how could anybody justify their behaviourtowards colleagues in the wake of a serious incident occurring due to abreakdown in communication? I emphasised just how indefensible such apredicament would be before a disciplinary hearing, a tribunal or, even worse,a Coroner’s court. Staff basically had a choice either to maintain their stance and not workwith their colleagues or to move forward and work through the differencestowards constructive team working. Those who were not prepared to move on werealso warned that there was no future for them within the organisation. Theycould not remain within that organisation and maintain their behaviour. The following week I met with John and asked him what he needed from hiscolleagues for him to communicate and work with them once again. He needed tounderstand why some of them had said what they had about him and to explaintheir behaviours. I used the same approach with two members of the other group (Jane and Paul)who had been most vociferous about John’s behaviour. The next day I met with John and passed on to him what had been said by theother group. I also passed on to his colleagues what he had said. This allowedfor challenges to take place in a safe, emotionally free atmosphere. As is so common with such conflict, most of what happened was interpretationand misinterpretation. With ground rules set, I conducted two mediationsessions each lasting one hour. I controlled all proceedings and informed Johnand Jane that if proceedings became emotional, I would terminate the session. Not surprisingly, in my presence each now presented their case far lessstridently using terms such as “appeared”, “possibly”,”perception”, as opposed to “she did”,”definitely”, “I know”. ??These two sessions reopened thelines of communication and misunderstanding quickly evolved into realisationand a desire to once again work together. Team building Two weeks later I facilitated two teambuilding days. One was held internallyand aimed at restoring corporate values and roles within the department. Thesecond was at a hotel and concentrated on moving forward and developing anumber of projects aimed at highlighting good practice, celebrating success andsharing these achievements through a number of articles, conferencepresentations and finally hosting a conference later in the year. Twelve months later, I went back to spend a day with the team. John is nowthe manager and is committed to understanding the value of conflict and itsmanagement. He has, through his promotion, recognised the need for self-awareness andhow his leadership style can impact positively and negatively on hiscolleagues. Conclusion Conflict is inevitable in the human interactive process. When it causesparties to explore new ideas, test their position, philosophy and practice, andwhen it stretches the imagination, it is positive. When dealt withconstructively, conflict can impel change, yield best practice and generate ahappy fulfilling atmosphere. Ignore it at your peril. References 1. Osborn A (2000) Workplace blues leave employers in the red. Guardian, 12October. 2. Oxford Dictionary (1988) Oxford: Clarendon Press. 3. Parker A, Archer T (1994) The Encyclopaedia of Human Behaviour. London:Academic Press. 4. Cahn D (1994) The Encyclopaedia of Human Behaviour. London: AcademicPress. 5. Maddix R (2000) London: Kogan Page. Walter Brennan BA (Hon) RMN FETC is an independent training consultant andinternational speaker on workplace conflict. For more details visit his website on: www.oliverbrennan.co.uk or e-mail [email protected] audit– Would you say that overall staff within this organisation are happy?– Are your staff happy to stay to complete a task if a job needs doingurgently?– Do you have a problem with organisational stress and sickness levels?– Do staff feel valued and appreciated by their supervisors/managers?– Do you recognise the views and contributions of junior staffindecision-making within your organisation?– Do you have managers and staff who have been described as bullies by otherstaff ?– Are you able to deal with most disputes/grievances informally andamicably?– Do you encourage staff to express views and opinions that may conflictwith the corporate philosophy?– Do you reward managers/supervisors who can flex their “interpersonalmuscles” (show how tough they can be) with adjectives such as “Theyget things done” or, “They don’t tolerate any nonsense”?– Do you consider staff who go off sick with stress to be”inadequate” or “weak”?– Do the problems of staff seem to get in the way of this organisation’sreal business?– Could you improve the culture of this organisation and make it a betterplace to work?– How are we seen by our competitors? Are we good or bad employers?– Do we encounter special problems retaining or attracting good staff tothis organisation?– Are the senior managers seen as remote and aloof by the workforce?– Does the workforce know who the chief executive is?– Do most of the senior managers employed within this organisation enjoy thetrust and respect of the workforce?– Are we committed to promoting equal opportunities for our workforce(provide evidence)?– Would we take disciplinary action against a manager who wasbullying/harassing staff? No holds barredOn 1 Aug 2001 in Personnel Today Comments are closed. Related posts:No related photos.