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Connecting women and opportunity

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Coping with workplace conflict – Jonny Gifford, Research Adviser at the CIPD

Workplace conflict

Jonny Gifford is a Research Adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development. He has been researching employment, people management and organisations for over a decade and he is also a practicing mediator. His specialist areas of expertise include workplace conflict, performance management, organisational culture and employee wellbeing.

Jonny Gifford
Jonny Gifford

On Thursday 2nd April 2015, the CIPD released new research, Getting Under the Skin of Workplace Conflict that highlights that one in three UK employees (38%) have experienced some form of interpersonal conflict at work in the last year. The CIPD is warning that mangers have a key role to play in diffusing tensions early on as workplace conflict can have a major impact on employee wellbeing and business outcomes, with as many as one in ten employees leaving their organisation as a result.

Workplace conflict: A serious impact on working relationships

All too often, employers brush workplace conflict aside, putting it down to a difference of opinion, but it’s clear that it has a serious impact on our working relationships, wellbeing and productivity.

Line managers have a crucial role to play here. For the most part they are seen as a positive influence in helping to create strong, healthy team relationships, but there’s still a clear case for developing managers and providing them with the skills they need.

Equipping managers with the skills to build robust teams

We need managers who can both build robust teams, where challenges can be made in a non-threatening way, and nip conflict in the bud before it has the chance to escalate. These are not generally seen as part of a core skills set for line managers and that view needs to change.

Interpersonal conflict cannot be ignored by business

Both ongoing difficult relationships and isolated incidents at work can have major ramifications for employees’ personal wellbeing and morale and serious implications for the organisations through demotivation, absence, employee churn, not to mention the time it can take management and HR to resolve disputes. With one in ten people leaving their role as a result of it and one in seven saying it affects their productivity, interpersonal conflict is something that no business can ignore.

Notable differences between the ways men and women deal with workplace conflict

There are some notable differences between men and women in their experiences of workplace conflict and how they deal with it, though it should also be said that there are some fundamental similarities. In particular, men and women are equally likely to experience interpersonal conflict, and there’s no statistical difference between men and women in how well they feel specific cases of conflict are resolved.

The differences start with the type of conflict men and women experience, men being more likely to say they’ve had isolated disputes or clashes, as opposed to ongoing difficult relationships.

Women are also more likely to say they’ve been bullied or harassed, though it’s hard to say whether this is strictly a gender issue: when we control for sector, the difference disappears, as bullying and harassment is seen to be more common in the public sector. This could be a reflection of the more unionised environments, where the language of bullying and harassment is more common, as opposed to genuine differences in behaviour.

Women more likely to find conflict stressful

Women are more likely than men to find conflict stressful. They are also more likely to discuss cases of conflict with friends or members of their family, but the interesting thing here is that it doesn’t seem to help resolve the conflict. In fact, talking to with friends or members is associated with less effective resolution of conflict. It seems that many of us will tend to offload to people outside of work instead of dealing with the actual problem relationship itself; possibly a case of complaining to the wrong person.

Recommendations to help women cope

So it would seem that for women in particular, it is important that organisations develop a culture in which it feels relatively safe to deal directly and openly with conflict, be it differences of opinion, clashes, unreasonable behaviour or the more creeping, less overt difficult relationships.

The CIPD has the following advice on tackling conflict management in the workplace:

More scope for mediation

In the CIPD’s survey just 1.5% of employees who had experienced conflict used mediation as a tool to resolve interpersonal conflict but 46% of employees surveyed overall thought that it was an effective approach to dealing with workplace conflict and more than one in ten (13%) felt that they personally had had a relationship that would have benefitted from mediation. This points to an unmet demand for alternative forms of dispute resolution (ADR). 

Line management matters

Line managers have a key role to play in creating good working relationships at work and would benefit from particular training on managing and resolving conflict within the team as well as understanding how they need to protect their team in conflict situations resulting from external influences, e.g. suppliers, the general public if in public-facing roles, etc.

Develop a suite of options for conflict resolution

While the survey supports the value of more informal approaches to resolving conflict, it also confirms the importance of having formal grievance and discipline procedures. However, in some cases, such as in conflict rooted in personality differences, they do not seem to help. Employers should therefore provide a range of options to help resolve different types of conflict.

You can read the report here.

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