The Pros and Cons of a Workplace Smackdown

August 7, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

(Look for part 2 of this post–“5 Ways to Turn Employee Conflict into a Good Thing“–tomorrow!)

There are very few things in the world you can count on like clockwork, but one of them is this: in any workplace, conflict is inevitable. In fact, if you’ve ever worked in an organization that was entirely free of conflict, you should probably call the Smithsonian immediately and have it catalogued.

Conflict is everywhere that people are. But how we think about, prepare for, and react to it tends to vary widely. Consider the following, both widely held perspectives on conflict in today’s business environment.:

  • Conflict is expensive and harmful to an organization.
  • Conflict is constructive and necessary for an organization.

So which is right? Well, it turns out both are actually true.

A CPP Global study found that on average, U.S. employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict, equating to approximately $359 billion in paid hours a year. According to that study, 27% of employees have witnessed conflict result in a personal attack, and 25% saw it result in sickness or absence from work.

Up north, the statistics are similar.  A Psychometrics study of the Canadian workplace found that 76% workers have seen conflict result in personal insults and attacks, 77% have seen it result in sickness or absence, and 81% have seen conflict lead to someone leaving the organization altogether.

Yet conflict isn’t all bad. In the Psychometrics study, HR professionals saw conflict lead to better solutions to problems and challenges (57%), major innovations (21%), increased motivation (31%), a better understanding of others (77%), and higher work team performance (40%).

And the same CPP Global study above reported that about three quarters of workers reported positive outcomes from conflict, and concluded that: “when channeled through the right tools and expertise, conflict can lead to positive outcomes.”

So what are these right tools and expertise? What makes the difference between this good, constructive conflict and bad, destructive conflict?

The trick seems to lie in building a culture where conflict can be resolved before it escalates, and in encouraging conflict resolution styles that are most likely to provide a positive outcome.

Austrian scholar Friedrich Glasl has found that conflict has a natural tendency to escalate. There is an initial phase in which the participants remain ready to cooperate. Then in the second phase, participants start to threaten each other.  In the third phase they become bent on destroying each other. It is only until the end of the second phase and the very beginning of the third that parties still have any regard for each other’s interests.

That means that by the time HR hears about a conflict, it may be beyond saving. It is critical, therefore, to build an environment where employees have the resources to resolve their own conflicts.

In the 1970s, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann developed the model that identifies the following five common styles people take when dealing with conflict:

  • Competitive/Dominating –These folks see the situation as a win/lose scenario, and this style is all about achieving one’s own goal.
  • Collaborative – The classic win-win. This style employs teamwork and cooperation to attain a mutually-acceptable and satisfying goal.
  • Accommodating – These people will capitulate in order to gain or maintain something else of value. But that capitulation involves subjugating their own needs to arrive at a resolution.
  • Compromising – In this style, both parties give something up to reach mutual agreement. This provides partial satisfaction to all, but full satisfaction to none.
  • Avoiding– This style involves evading the conflict, delegating decisions, doing nothing or delaying the moment of conflict.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has interacted with other humans that collaborative and compromising styles are most effective. In fact, a 2011 study published in the Human Resource Development Quarterly found conflict and conflict resolution style to be “significantly related to individual job satisfaction.” The collaborative and compromising styles were positively related to interpersonal outcomes, while dominating (competitive), accommodating, and avoiding styles negatively related to interpersonal outcomes.

Enter transformative conflict theory, which relies on emotional ties and connections to turn conflict into constructive outcomes. This theory focuses not on settlement or agreement, but lets “parties talk together and listen to each other, (and) build new understandings of themselves and their situation, critically examine the possibilities, and make their own decisions.”

The transformative method relies on a strong culture that uses empowerment and recognition to reverse feelings of disempowerment, and it emphasizes a “positive, constructive, connecting and humanizing interaction” that allows participants to leverage a shared values system and perspective in order to arrive at win-win conflict resolution.

So how can we, as HR leaders, create a collaborative, open, relationship-based culture where people opt for these more constructive styles of resolution? Stay tuned tomorrow!

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5 Ways to Turn Employee Conflict into a Good Thing
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