Conflict, Avoidance, and Collateral Damage

Ian Claffey – Oxondon Coaching

Conflict in the workplace has a massive impact on both business running costs and bottom-line profits each year – as well as implications for staff and their emotional wellbeing.

The cost to production and output can be staggering with an estimated annual loss to UK business running into £billions. Conflict may initially stem from a simple breakdown in communication, which may mean something as minor as poor email etiquette or misinterpreting the tone of an email through to cross-cultural misunderstandings within global teams arising from differences in both direct and indirect communication styles.

It’s easy to think of cross-culture differences when we look at other countries and cross-border issues; however cross-cultural challenges can exist within our teams, departments and organisations. The way finance and IT departments communicate may be very different to the communication styles of business developers, marketeers and sales professionals. And not forgetting those involved in the world of Mergers and Acquisitions who are managing merging cultures.

Avoiding dealing with conflict could have long-term effects on a business. This may include time lost due to sick leave as staff report stress-related symptoms: poor concentration, low confidence and even lack of judgment as they lose focus on day-to-day tasks. The time lost and energy used by those involved in keeping the lid on the situation can be phenomenal both in terms of financial cost and morale.

Signs of conflict can include ‘go slow’ behaviours, not sharing business knowledge across teams or departments and not responding to requests. These are just a few examples of what can happen when two or more parties consciously work against each other. More often than not the energy needed to keep those in conflict producing an acceptable level of work can be far greater than having them deliver on their original ‘job description’. Teams can split over time as people take sides and loyalties are tested. The longer conflict is allowed to go unchallenged the greater the risk of collateral damage to relationships and to the business in general.

Symptoms from clients we have supported sound pretty much the same. Individuals tell us that home life and personal relationships suffer due to lack of energy and lack of emotional availability, most report that their free time is taken up thinking and rethinking the area of conflict. Clients also report a feeling of being in a downward spiral, or walking through a fog, with much time spent dwelling on the past and very little time spent considering ways forward.

Research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), puts the annual cost of conflict at work in the UK annually in excess of £20bn. Some line managers report having to allocate around 15-20% of their time to handling conflict.

However it needn’t be all bad news; conflict can have its pluses. If the issues are dealt with constructively, and all parties feel they have been heard and their points of view taken seriously, there is every chance relationships can be repaired, and on occasion even strengthened. The main components required are ‘willingness’ needed at the beginning of the process, and a degree of ‘goodwill’ at the midpoint.

When external mediation is introduced all parties will realise the situation will soon be resolved one way or another. Bringing in external support will help kick start the process and give it the focus and energy needed to reach a positive conclusion.

Even though the causes of conflict can often be complex, the solution needs to be simple. If those involved are feeling drained by events, the last thing they want is to engage a series complicated challenges.

Here are some suggestions for reaching consensus:

  • Make sure that good relationships are the first priority as far as possible, using core values from counselling can help, these include: respect, empathy and genuineness.
  • Feeling uncomfortable is to be expected, everyone needs to be aware of this. Even though people may want to walk away at times, try to make it part of your ‘ground rules’ at the start of the process that a no walking out policy is in place.
  • Avoid going too far into the past, the reason for the meeting is to look to the future.
  • Do your best to be courteous to one-another and remain constructive even under pressure (try seeing colleagues as business partners or external clients).
  • Keep people and problems separate by putting principles before personalities.
  • By separating the problem from the person, real issues can be debated without further damaging working relationships.
  • Treat differences of opinion as part of the process; try to use ‘open’ questions. e.g. ‘How would that help us to move forward?’ – ‘What are the benefits of doing it that way?’
  • Avoid changing minds in order to try to achieve harmony too quickly.
  • Once an agreement is reached, explore the structure of the road map, or vision for the future and double-check that all parties have willingly agreed.
  • Record your outcomes and email copies to all involved to avoid misunderstandings at a later stage.

Mediation Overview

(1) At the scope-out meeting with the line-manager or HR contact a general brief is taken by the facilitator. At this point Individual 1-2-1 sessions are agreed for individuals involved in the process.

(2) Each party meets with the facilitator in private and has the opportunity to off-load their feelings to someone outside of the business; the content of this session remains confidential between client and facilitator. In this session they are encouraged to visualize what the future might look like for them.

(3) All parties agree to create a bullet point list, containing no more than six bullets each. These will include a combination of ‘must haves’ and ‘good to haves’ – the development of the list is encouraged with compromise in mind. Starting with point (1) what do your really need to point (6) what would be good to have but you could live without. This helps to focus on what’s important. For example on recent project a job description needed to be re-written, which was one of the key issues as over time the individuals roles and responsibilities had changed shape considerably.

(4) Prior to the facilitated session taking place preferred outcomes are shared across all parties; this helps to remove surprises on the day. The best way forward is to email copies to all parties several days before the first group meeting. When under pressure it is easy for one or other party to have a misunderstanding around context, so having a couple of days to digest the material ahead of the facilitated group session allows time to consider the others’ viewpoint – the use of empathy is encouraged from the outset.

(5) At the facilitated mediation stage all parties are encouraged to explore desired outcomes; this is where the ‘road map’ for the future is designed and agreed. A further two or three sessions can be put in place, as needed, in order to keep the process on track until trust has had a chance to develop and relationships have had an opportunity to strengthen. Having some sessions in the ‘bank’ allows for any realignment issues which may arise as result of new ideas being tested and implemented.

If mediation and conflict resolution is to be successful, all involved need to feel the process is going to be safe and conducted by professionals with the assurance of confidentiality from the outset.