Managing conflict is a topic that organizations tend to avoid for the same reason that people avoid it — because it’s hard, it makes us uncomfortable, and it’s just easier to avoid conflict, right?
The practice of avoiding conflict is based on the misconception that all conflict is bad. In reality, conflict often pushes organizations and teams to be more innovative and take relationships to a new level of openness, honesty and understanding.
Though conflict is a normal and natural part of any workplace, avoiding conflict or pretending everything is great all the time can lead to higher absenteeism, lost productivity and eroded company culture. All these issues add up pretty quickly and can quickly destroy your company brand, halt your recruitment efforts and have a major financial impact.
So yes, conflict is there whether you deal with it or not. Plus, it has power, but the only way to harness the power of conflict so that it can contribute to the success of your organization or your team, is to learn how to manage it effectively.
The Real Cost
So, what does unmanaged workplace conflict cost in real dollars? It’s higher that you probably think. According to a study by CPP Global, U.S workers spend more than 2.5 hours per week on conflicts. That adds up to an estimated $359 billion in productivity lost due to workplace conflict (based on an average wage of $17.95 per hour). This staggering amount does not take into account the very real costs of employee turnover, retraining costs, lower productivity, absenteeism and more.
How Conflict Effects Teams
We’ve all been on teams where unchecked conflict has led to serious issues. It’s bigger than low morale. In a team environment where conflict is avoided or ignored, team members adapt by developing unhealthy behaviors like passive aggression, hoarding information and defensive reactions, gossip and general negativity. It destroys true collaboration and trust, makes transparency and vulnerability nearly impossible, tolerates bullying and creates communication blocks. In effect, it’s a team killer. I’ve seen in it in action when I’m called in to restore the team trust. The root of the problem is often communication issues and a lack of skill around conflict resolution strategies or more importantly, no knowledge of how to have productive conflict.
Can we still be friends? What Productive Conflict Looks Like
Rather than resolving conflict after the fact, why not create a new set of rules that allow teams to navigate inevitable conflict in a more effective way? It’s not that radical an idea. Here’s what it looks like:
- An understanding and awareness of the different styles and personalities on your team
- An open exchange of different ideas and opinions
- Ability to productively and respectfully engage in conflict in the moment — not after the fact
- All parties feel equally heard, respected an unafraid to voice dissenting opinions
- Goal is to reach a mutually agreeable solution
Learning to have productive conflict at work takes real commitment, but it is worth the effort.