Conflict in some form or degree is an inevitable part of the workplace environment. In its most negative forms it can result in higher absenteeism, presenteeism and attrition and lower employee engagement and productivity. This article notes that if conflict is positioned as a purely negative thing, people will either try to avoid it or attempt to “solve” it as quickly as possible. Yet research shows that different opinions and perspectives can provide organizations with useful information and creative alternatives. If people are too collegial they will bury problems and arrive at sub-optimal solutions. The key, we are told, is to focus on the positive benefits of differing opinions and embrace the tension long enough “to find creative energy … and generate alternative ideas.

The article also explores how to achieve and maximize the positive potentials inherent in conflict, including strengthened relationships, improved teamwork, cooperative problem-solving, opened communication and an increase in employee engagement and productivity. To illustrate this point the article focuses on Vancouver Island University (VIU) and their program for managing workplace conflict. When academic conflicts began to negatively impact engagement and productivity at the university VIU began to actively manage conflict resolution by dedicating a good portion of their intranet site to presenting the how’s and why’s of the issue, with topics ranging from conflict styles, “the roles of assumptions, perceptions and expectations in conflict” and “being hard on the problem, not the person” in order to encourage and guide a healthy debate around the issue. The program developed at VIU is discussed and readers are shown how its positive results depend on a respectful and supportive work environment that manages conflict in a positive way, encouraging employees to engage in a healthy debate and an active exchange of ideas.

The role of the HR department was critical to the development of VIU’s program and its ongoing success. The author notes that HR professionals have historically not taken a leading role in this area, leaving managers to deal with a subject they have little experience in. She encourages companies to involve their HR departments and to provide more training in conflict management, particularly in the areas of modeling proper behavior and providing clarity about what is expected.

Source: Sarah Dobson, Canadian HR Reporter; July 13, 2009

Full Text: COPYRIGHT Jul 13, 2009 Carswell Publishing

Abstract (Summary)
The well-being of employees has always been a top priority at Vancouver Island University (VIU) and, since 2004, its HR department has dedicated a good portion of the school’s Web site to managing workplace conflict. Managed conflict can lead to strengthened relationships and teamwork, open communication, co-operative problem solving, increased productivity, a supportive environment and a focus on results. At VIU, one of the key values is a respectful and supportive working environment, and employees are encouraged to honor the “open exchange” of ideas, academic freedom and collaboration across departments and disciplines, says Brenda McKay, manager of HR at VIU. But managing the conflict properly is crucial to reaching the sunny side of discord. More than nine out of 10 respondents feel conflict management is an important leadership skill but only 13% say leaders are “very effective” at dealing with discord in the workplace.

Properly managed workplace conflict can boost productivity, strengthen teamwork and lead to major innovation.

The well-being of employees has always been a top priority at Vancouver Island University and, since 2004, its HR department has dedicated a good portion of the school’s website to managing workplace conflict. Presenting the hows and whys of the issue, the information covers topics such as conflict styles, “being hard on the problem, not the person” and “the roles of assumptions, perceptions and expectations in conflict.”

While conflict can have a negative effect at work – leading to higher absenteeism, presenteeism and attrition rates, low employee engagement, decreased productivity and increased disability claims there are also positive sides to the issue, says Brenda McKay, manager of HR at Vancouver Island University (VTU) in Nanaimo, B.C.

Managed conflict can lead to strengthened relationships and teamwork, open communication, co-operative problem solving, increased productivity, a supportive environment and a focus on results.

“Healthy debate around an issue can lead to education and to seeing things from a different perspective. This can then lead to excellent solutions,” says McKay.

Based on the positive feedback received from employees using VTU’s tools and resources, “this has definitely led to more timely resolution of conflict between individuals,” she says.

VIU’s proactive stance on conflict management is backed by a recent study that shows conflict, when properly managed, actually benefits organizations, leading to major innovations and better solutions. Almost nine out of 10 (87 per cent) of 350 Canadian HR professionals polled have seen conflict lead to something positive, according to Psychometrics Canada’s Warring Egos, Toxic Individuals, Feeble Leadership.

Conflict Generates New Ideas

Too often employees are bombarded with messages saying, “We’re not supposed to disagree with people,” ‘Orated differences of opinion are bad” and “We’re all supposed to get along and play well together,” says Shawn Bakker, a psychologist and researcher at Psychometrics Canada in Edmonton. If conflict is perceived as a purely negative thing, people strive hard to avoid it or to solve it as quickly as possible.

But different perspectives and opinions can provide more useful information and interesting alternatives when trying to solve a problem. In a conflict situation, it’s natural for people to become uncomfortable but they should focus on the positive benefits of differences of opinion, he says.

“If they can stay with that tension a little bit longer, that’s where they can find some creative energy and also generate alternative ideas,” says Bakker.
If everybody’s too collegial, they’ll take the same path and won’t actually come up with the best solutions, he says. Many leaders would probably benefit from having a group of individuals who are willing to disagree with them, otherwise they “aren’t necessarily capturing the strengths of their team,” he says.
At VIU, one of the key values is a respectful and supportive working environment, and employees are encouraged to honor the “open exchange” of ideas, academic freedom and collaboration across departments and disciplines, says McKay.

“We support and encourage healthy debate and an exchange of ideas,” she says. “We also want to ensure our employees are not subjected to unwanted conflict.”

Conflict a Fact of Life in Every Workplace

Conflict is a fact of life in every properly functioning workplace and there are many potential positives, says Blaine Donais, president and founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute in Toronto. Without discord there is no dynamism, there is no healthy, proactive change that takes place and, therefore, there’s stagnation. A completely homogenous workplace, where everybody thinks the same, means less conflict but also less innovation and creativity – the very kinds of things that make companies such as RIM and Apple so successful, he says.

“Employers and leaders should be encouraging conflict, they should be encouraging diversity, encouraging lively debate about things in their workplace,” he says.

A workplace without apparent discord usually has a great deal of disagreement, but it is latent conflict that isn’t articulated, partly out of fear, by employees, line managers or HR, says Donais. And frequent “perceived injurious events” that are not addressed could lead a person to look elsewhere for a job.

Conflict provides an opportunity to resolve underlying issues and change the way things are done at an organization.
“It fortifies the faith that people have in your conflict management system,” says Donais. “Encouraging diversity is really about encouraging conflict, but it’s the kind of conflict that is structured, it has a goal in mind and often produces positive results for people.”

HR’s Role in Managing Conflict

But managing the conflict properly is crucial to reaching the sunny side of discord.

“I’ve seen workplaces basically implode because conflict hasn’t been properly managed,” says Donáis. “They need to put structures around it so it’s focused, there’s points at which distinction is being made between healthy conflict and unhealthy conflict. And there are mechanisms to deal with them, and people capable of doing that.”

HR should be leading the way, he says, because they are the experts.

“They’re the only people who have put any thought into the human dynamic in the workplace. And they’re relied upon for that,” says Donáis. “They should be the people who develop, diagnose and are involved in systems change and renewal. That doesn’t mean they’re making decisions that’s the daily rite for managers. But managers can’t be expected to be superheroes who know everything – that’s why we have HR professionals.”

However, the Psychometrics Canada study suggests HR is not taking a leading role. More than six out of 10 (66 per cent) respondents say everyone has a role to play in conflict management. Most others believe senior leaders (15 per cent) and managers (11 per cent) are responsible for ensuring conflict is dealt with appropriately. But only one per cent of HR professionals believe they are the final arbiters of workplace conflict, even when they have had the most training around this issue.

“And that makes sense to me, I can see that,” says Bakker. “By the time conflict gets passed on to them, it’s probably after everybody’s made a big mess of it. And I can see that’s not a positive experience for them and often doesn’t result in any win-win.”

More than nine out of 10 respondents feel conflict management is an important leadership skill but only 13 per cent say leaders are “very effective” at dealing with discord in the workplace. The gap is surprising, says Bakker, particularly as the skills required to excel in this area, according to respondents, are pretty basic, such as modelling proper behaviour and providing clarity about what’s expected.

However, it takes courage for managers to enter a “conflict-ridden environment,” he says.

“Jumping in there is probably the better approach, even if it may feel uncomfortable. A lot of times (employees) are waiting for management to do that,” says Bakker. “Managers struggle just like the rest of us do they don’t always see conflict as positive and like to get out of it as quick as they can as well.”

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