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The Price of Conflict

What you need to know


Why can’t we just all get along? How many times have we heard that refrain? Well, I have some good news and some bad news: Interpersonal conflict is a part of life and is here to stay. In fact, conflict is an inevitable and natural part of all relationships at work and at home.

Conflict itself is not the problem—unresolved conflict is the problem.

The good news is that there are beneficial ways to manage conflict. The bad news is that it is often uncomfortable to implement changes in organizational culture. It is, however, well worth the effort! When an organization learns how to allow civilized disagreement to flourish and resolve, it empowers and energizes everyone. Here’s what you need to know.


Significant Costs

It begins with understanding what workplace conflict is all about and the costs of poor conflict management. The costs for poor conflict management in an organization have significant impact on morale, productivity, and turnover.


Turnover Costs as an Example

  • Your annual salary: $_____________
  • Multiply times 1.5 (150%) = $_____________ = Investment in you by your employer
  • Multiply times 1.5 (150%) = $_____________ = Cost of replacing you
  • Multiply times 0.6 (60%) = $_____________ = Average role of conflict in voluntary terminations
  • Multiply times number of voluntary terminations in your organization = $_____________ = Annual cost of conflict to your organization for Turnover


Managing Conflict

The cost of poorly managed conflict in your workplace is significant to say the least. And yet, most organizations either do not have conflict management plans or do not allocate the resources and time to make them effective. Policies are just not enough without follow through and training on how to solicit and manage healthy conflict so it gets resolved.

Conflict resolution starts with how you were raised to deal with conflict. We all grew up in some sort of a family dynamic where we learned how to deal with conflict. You might have learned to avoid it all costs i.e., “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Maybe you had to sleep on it before surfacing an issue or maybe you just wanted to talk about it. Possibly you were raised that as soon as issues arose you ran to that other person, got in their face, and wanted to discuss it right away. However you were raised determines how you initially approach conflict and how you prefer or were expected to handle it.

Your life experiences also have a strong impact on your conflict style. As an adult you are thrown into a group of people raised with different strategies who appear to be from another planet when it comes to conflict. The culture of your new job can seem like a foreign country where you often don’t speak the language and people are not saying what they mean.

It also goes beyond just surfacing issues. Your family and upbringing taught you how to deal with the conflict once it was on the table or it was approached unspoken. Whether it was to win at all costs, find middle ground, or just give in, we all have our preferred fighting styles.

Finally, we also have our post-conflict behaviors that determine how settlement of a conflict plays out. Some people forgive and forget. Others seek retaliation at every opportunity. Some people, who cannot forgive or forget, lie in wait with a smile on the surface and yet will attack with deadly precision when you least expect it. So what do you do when you find yourself working with this menagerie of players called your team and you want to know what to do to be successful and resolve issues?


Organizational Culture

The overarching factor in creating healthy conflict here is organizational culture. Most commonly, organizations are either of the “see no evil, hear no evil” type or they use the “Hammer of Thor” to smash down conflict like they are playing a game of whack-a-mole. Then management wonders why the turnover is so high and productivity drops. Here are steps that high performance teams and organizations can take to create healthy conflict resolution.


You Can’t Manage What You Can’t Measure

Implement metrics that measure progress against goals and the accomplishment of the mission of the organization. This is strategic planning at its best. Every team needs measureable goals that drive performance. Goals need to be individually owned and team success dependent on every person’s success so everyone is compelled to work together to create overall success. This creates conflict naturally as people want to achieve goals and non-performers feel the pressure to step up or promote themselves to the job market.


Implement a Formal Conflict Management Program

Institute a formal conflict management program and train everyone as to the “way” conflict is to be handled. I recommend this become an employee policy to hold everyone accountable. HR, when given adequate resources, can provide oversight and support to conflict management. A great conflict management program has some key ingredients and practices. I recommend the following:

  • Everyone agrees to surface issues of concern directly with person or team within a set period of time. 24 -48 hours works as this allows a cool-off period if needed. Alternatively they can surface it to HR as well.
  • Insure everyone is listening to both sides of an issue. Getting people to see the other side, not as right or wrong but as valid for the other side, is the biggest key to enabling resolution of conflicts. Creating an empathetic environment where introverts and extroverts listen to one another creates respect and trust.
  • Be soft on the people, hard on the problem. Separating the people from the problem surfaces the real issues that can be worked on. Determine if it is personal behavior that is causing resentment or concern and then HR can address it. If it is issue based, rational negotiation will work.
  • Focus on common ground. Where we agree (even if it’s small) is the basis for getting to an agreement on where to go from this day forward. When teams or individuals are stuck in the past, it is hard to get past blaming and fault finding or the right and wrong of the situation. Desired change can occur when teams or individuals start focusing on the preferred win/win future and what each party cares about.
  • Reframe conflict as an opportunity. Organizations that view conflict and issues as an opportunity to be overcome are much more adept at handling anything that comes at them. Everyone aligns to the mission and everyone feels their point of view is respected. Train managers and employees on healthy conflict management. One client I work with has a conflict ninja group of regular employees who mediate and facilitate conflict resolution.


Key Lessons

There are key lessons that conflict teaches us about how to be a better human beings as well as achieving together at our workplaces. By embracing diversity and enforcing respect for everyone we become stronger. Conflict is a constant in our life and work, and we each have a pre-disposition on how we handle conflict. It is imperative to learn how to manage conflict constructively to create more of what we want in the world. Underneath the surface of conflict, we all want similar things, and conflict can be a catalyst that helps us in finding that common ground if managed well.R


This article first appeared in the July 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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