Conflict In The Workplace Negatively Impacts Wellness: Here’s What To Do About It

Is your workplace often the center of conflict? If so, you may need an ER (Employee Relations) Specialist.
  • Does your organisation need an ER Specialist? ER stands for ‘Employee Relations’ and part of a specialist’s role is to smooth conflict in the workplace.
  • Sadly, these roles exist due to frequent and unresolved conflict in the workplace, which negatively impacts employees’ wellbeing.
  • According to the CIPD, organisations need to make conflict management a core strategic focus and offer better support to enable managers to handle situations more effectively.

The CIPD, a professional body for HR and people development, recently published the findings of its survey on conflict in the workplace. 

Titled “Managing Conflict in the Modern Workplace”, the report found that “employers’ and people managers’ confidence to deal with conflict is not matched by the experience of employees who have been on the receiving end of it.”

This is a worrisome issue, especially considering that conflict in the workplace can negatively impact an employee’s wellbeing and the overall workplace experience. 

“Relationships in the workplace affect the culture as well as the overall quality of work.”

While a supporting and positive working environment with positive relationships can enhance our experience of work, “conflict can seriously undermine it.”

Conflict at work negatively affects our:

  • Productivity and performance
  • Motivation
  • Commitment
  • Anxiety levels 
  • Mental health
  • Stress levels
  • Concentration levels
  • Engagement levels. 

“It [conflict at work] is stressful and time consuming for all concerned, and takes focus away from delivering on objectives and organisational priorities.”

Workplace Conflict Is a Common Occurrence

CIPD’s research found that conflict is very much a part of organisational life. According to survey respondents, 26% of employees and 20% of employers claim that conflict at work is a common occurrence. 

And it’s not just about not agreeing with a coworker, though even minor issues can easily escalate. 

“Workplace conflict can occur across a wide spectrum of behaviour, from a low-level difference of opinion to serious incidents of bullying or harassment.”

Low-level conflicts can fester and escalate if they are not addressed and resolved in a timely manner, which seems to be a problem more often than not. 

CIPD found that “under half of employees (44%) experiencing conflict report that the conflict or difficult relationship has so far been fully or largely resolved.”

This needs to change. 

4 Ways HR Can Improve Conflict Management Strategies

The CIPD believes that “people professionals should be at the forefront of fostering inclusive working cultures that do not tolerate any type of inappropriate behaviour.”

To help HR professionals accomplish this, the CIPD suggests four key strategies that organisations must act on. 

1. Build inclusive cultures based on prevention 

A workplace that fosters acceptance and respect is less likely to experience conflict on an ongoing basis. Therefore, organisations need to prevent stereotypical attitudes and unfair treatment. 

“A quarter (24%) of employees think challenging issues such as bullying and harassment are swept under the carpet in their organisation, while one in five (20%) agree that ‘people in my team sometimes reject others for being different’.”

This shows that there’s plenty of work to be done in this area. Otherwise, both employers and employees alike are likely to suffer. 

Companies need to create a culture that encourages openness and willingness to challenge inappropriate behaviour.  The best way to do this is to be proactive and focus on conflict prevention. 

2. Put the ER back into HR 

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CIPD believes that “less value is often attached to the role of employee relations as an HR discipline, with conflict management typically viewed as operational and transactional in nature.” 

This mindset needs to shift and organisations need to make conflict management a core strategic focus. More importantly, companies need to realise that they’re not understanding and identifying conflict effectively. 

“Conflict is a fact of life in the modern workplace; against a backdrop of tumultuous political and economic change and highly pressurised work environments, there has never been a greater need for the expertise offered by ER specialists.”

3. Let’s shift from process to resolution 

“One consequence of not viewing conflict from a strategic standpoint is that it tends to be dealt with in a reactive, ad hoc way.”

Rather than focusing on prevention, companies are focusing too much on handling individual disputes. Not only is this not effective, but it is not sustainable in the long run. 

Companies are in need for more effective and collaborative ways to resolve conflict. They also need a process that supports employees and takes their claims seriously. They need a people-focused approach to conflict management. 

“Almost a third (31%) of the employees in our survey who had experienced conflict said the person they reported it to didn’t take the conflict seriously, and almost half (48%) felt the other party’s interests took precedence.”

It’s important that HR managers keep in mind that when conflict occurs, “it’s often not the immediate issue that is even the true source of the dispute.” This is why it’s important that companies address conflict at an early, informal stage, before conflict escalates and makes it harder for people to want to engage in dialogue. 

4. Ensure better support for managers in the front line 

Not only is there less value attached to ER specialists, but also managers aren’t being trained to be knowledgeable in people and conflict management. 

CIPD findings show that “managers tend to be least confident about the ‘people’ aspects of their role, such as managing conflict and having difficult conversations, compared with the more technical aspects like meeting deadlines and managing projects.”

This isn’t too surprising as only 40% of people managers say their organisation has provided them with training in people management skills to support them in their management role.

Employees are being affected by this, naturally. 

When asked how effective their people manager was in dealing with the conflict they experienced, a third (32%) [of employees] who had experienced conflict said their people manager had made the situation worse. 

Additional Findings from the Report

  • People are most likely to have conflict at work with those people they spend the most time with (managers or team members).
  • The most common cause of conflict is differences in personality or working styles. 
  • The most common behaviour associated with conflict at work is lack of respect, reported by two-thirds (66%) of employees. 
  • Though employers agree that employees would feel confident raising issues about conflict in my organisation, only 60% of employees agree. 
  • Less than half (46%) of employees agree that ‘my organisation has effective procedures for resolving interpersonal conflict’. 
  • 53% of people who had experienced bullying or harassment in the past three years didn’t report the most recent incident. 
  • The main barriers people faced in not reporting the bullying or harassment include fears that their complaint wouldn’t be taken seriously, that action wouldn’t be taken against the alleged perpetrator and/or that it could harm their relationships at work.
  • Less than half of employees who had a serious conflict in the last 12 months (44%) say the conflict or difficult relationship has so far been fully or largely resolved, with over a third (36%) reporting it has not been resolved. 
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