The key to successful conflict management in the workplace is understanding the underlying signs and causes. Here we discuss common causes of workplace conflict and how to identify issues before they escalate. We share strategies to help you prevent and resolve workplace conflict, leading to positive outcomes.
What is workplace conflict?
Conflict can happen in any workplace – from shops and offices to factories and warehouses. While conflict can sometimes be seen as positive, such as competition between teams or staff members to achieve company goals, create new ideas or foster creativity, in most cases it occurs as:
- Negative conflict– where clashes between staff remain unresolved, undermining teamwork, reducing productivity, and increasing staff turnover.
- Workplace violence– a conflict that escalates into physical or verbal violence. Workers in sectors such as hospitality, retail, travel, leisure, and health are also at risk of violence from customers, including aggression, verbal and physical abuse. Worryingly, conflict can lead to violence in the workplace. There were 688,000 reports of violence at work in 2019/20 according to the Health and Safety Executive.
Conflict at work is commonplace. According to CIPD Managing Conflict in the Modern Workplace, a quarter of employees claim that conflict is prominent in their workplace, with just over one-third of employees experiencing interpersonal conflict in the previous 12 months.
Employees are also concerned about the ways in which organisations are managing conflict in the workplace. Around one-quarter of employees feel that issues such as bullying are not taken seriously or are ignored by their managers.
What is the cost of workplace conflict?
Conflict in the workplace can be hugely damaging to your organisation. From poor employee morale to increased sick leave, workplace conflict results in a toxic environment and, if left unchecked, can leave organisations open to legal action.
Acas, in collaboration with the University of Sheffield and the University of Westminster have published a report, Estimating the cost of workplace conflict. The report sheds light on the substantial financial implications of workplace conflict, drawing upon surveys conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CPD).
According to the report, workplace conflict costs the UK economy £28.5 billion a year due to loss of productivity and the time employees take off work with stress, anxiety, and depression. This also paints a poignant picture of the human toll of workplace disputes.
Productivity is not only reduced by employees being away from work it is also caused by ‘presenteeism’. This is where employees are physically present but mentally and physically disengaged from their work.
There are also significant costs associated with terminating employment contracts as a result of irreconcilable conflicts. The termination process, which includes severance packages and legal proceedings, constitutes a significant drain on resources. Then there is the high cost of hiring and training new staff to fill vacant positions.
Interestingly, the report highlights that the costs associated with addressing conflicts in their early stages are modest. This underscores the importance of early conflict resolution strategies.
What are the causes of workplace conflict?
Understanding the causes of staff friction is a key part of workplace conflict management. People typically clash with those they spend the most time with, such as work colleagues, managers, customers and the general public where trust and communication has broken down or there is frustration with the services provided.
Conflict at work covers a wide spectrum of behaviours, from heated disagreements to bullying, harassment and even physical violence. Less visible sources of conflict can include body language, ignoring colleagues or customers, rudeness, and even poor personal hygiene.
Sources of workplace conflict can include:
- Customers feeling frustrated or disappointed with goods or services.
- Stress caused by staff workloads, deadlines and lack of management support.
- Differences in working styles.
- Personality differences.
- Lack of clarity around job roles, responsibilities and objectives.
- Poor workplace design.
- Lack of respect and not valuing other people’s views, experiences or background.
- Bullying, harassment or discriminatory behaviour.
- Poor performance, attendance and timekeeping.
- Drink, drug or other addiction issues.
- Unfair treatment.
- Inappropriate language.
Other, more subtle, behaviours can also become sources of workplace conflict, including:
- Customer perceptions and opinions about a worker or the organisation.
- Ignoring or blanking colleagues, or not including people in teamwork or social activities.
- Poor manners and rudeness, such as talking over people in meetings.
- Taking credit for other people’s work or ideas.
- Excessive personal use of work equipment, the internet, email or phone.
- Poor personal hygiene.
While the list of potential conflict triggers is lengthy, the two primary triggers according to the CIPD’s research, Managing conflict in the modern workplace, are differences in personality and styles of working, and a lack of respect in the workplace.
There are many causes of conflict in the retail, hospitality or the public facing environment. Some may be easy to identify, such as frustration, anger, misunderstanding, stress, communication problems, conflict with authority and theft or robbery.
What are the early signs of workplace conflict?
It can be difficult to identify early signs of workplace conflict, which makes training staff in recognising and resolving conflict a vital investment in an organisation’s people skills. Once triggers are identified, managers and employees can take positive action to resolve an issue before it gets out of hand.
Major clues include changes in employee behaviour, such as:
- Previously dependable employees missing deadlines or producing sub-standard work.
- Out-of-the-blue requests to change assignments, teams or seating position.
- An increase in sick days, lateness, and the frequency and length of breaks.
- Changes in team communication – fewer casual conversations and the negative discussion of work issues.
How to manage conflict in the workplace
Conflict management in the workplace is about prevention and resolution.
Preventative techniques reduce the likelihood that conflict will happen in the first place, and resolution techniques aim to achieve a positive outcome for all parties.
Don’t wait until workplace conflict has become a major issue or an incident occurs. Develop systems of work and the skills needed to intervene early on by monitoring teams and staff. Set clear processes and procedures for staff to raise issues before they escalate.
You can help prevent workplace conflict by:
- Learning about your team– what motivates staff and how they handle pressure, deadlines and hazards in undertaking their jobs.
- Appreciate differences– helping colleagues understand other ways of working can reduce misunderstandings and trigger points for conflict to occur.
- Be empathetic– listening to customers and staff problems and talking through issues can help provide support when employees are feeling threatened or stressed.
- Challenge poor behaviour– be alert to inappropriate behaviour, call out unfair treatment, rudeness or inappropriate language. Ensure that there is an active conflict reporting system in place.
- Hold regular 1-2-1s with staff– use open questioning to get beneath the surface of what may appear a minor quarrel or conflict experiences but could be based on deeper causes, resentment or misunderstanding.
- Set clear objectives and roles– regularly review performance identifying any sources of conflict.
- Set clear expectations– write guidelines on staff and customers behaviour and what to do if conflict or bullying arises.
- Invest in conflict management training – conflict management training supports managers, leaders and supervisors to spot the signs of conflict and take appropriate action before matters escalate.
Workplace conflict can happen despite an employer’s best efforts at prevention. How conflict is handled and resolved sends a clear message to staff about the culture and workplace environment of an organisation.
You can establish positive conflict resolution techniques by:
- Performance management– set clear objectives and expectations for staff, and tackle issues head-on during regular 1-2-1 meetings. More formal performance management, such as performance improvement plans (PIPs), can reset behaviours that were the cause of workplace conflict, such as poor punctuality or excessive personal use of internet access.
- Listen to all sides– talk to individuals involved in a conflict, keeping an open mind, and asking open-ended questions to get to the root of the issue. Ensure that there is an active reporting system to report incidents.
- Bring people together– look to facilitate discussions about points of conflict, giving space so staff can talk from their perspective and encouraging each side to acknowledge and see different points of view. Look for ways to bridge differences and set expectations and approaches going forwards, getting all parties to agree on them. Ensure that incidents are investigated and improvements to prevent a recurrence are put in place.
- Keep tabs on progress– follow up with all parties to check everything is resolved and monitor progress.
While informal approaches are preferable, organisations also need to establish formal procedures for staff to complain, raise issues or report incidents. Make sure these are clearly communicated and that procedures are regularly reviewed. Ensure all staff are provided with health and safety procedures, documents and HR support, and that clear policies around conflict, violence, bullying, harassment and discrimination are in place.
Typical formal procedures include:
- Raising a grievance or reporting an incident– this ensures a complaint raised by an employee is properly investigated and that incidents are recorded and reported to the enforcing authority where required.
- Performance improvement plans– these are formal goals and expectations designed to address poor performance or behaviours and can result in disciplinary procedures. You should also review safe systems of work, as well as employee awareness and training.
- Disciplinary procedures– have clear procedures in how the organisation deals with discipline and what actions may be taken against customers or the general public.
Workplace conflict management training
Investing in conflict management training can ensure that staff disputes are resolved with positive outcomes for all parties. It equips leaders, managers and supervisors with the skills needed to identify and act on potential points of conflict.
With effective conflict management training, employees can:
- Understand the common causes of conflict at work.
- Spot early signs of conflict.
- Apply conflict management techniques and systems to positively control or resolve issues.
- Build safe systems of work to prevent violence in the workplace.
- Understand the legal implications of workplace conflict and how compliance can be achieved.
Learn effective techniques for conflict management in the workplace with our online Conflict Management course, including how to apply risk reduction strategies and understanding how to recognise signs of escalation to defuse conflict in the workplace.