You would have to have been holed up in a cave for the past week to not be aware of the fierce debate that has erupted over Jeremy Clarkson’s alleged ‘fracas’ with a producer colleague. Thanks to Clarkson’s high profile, the workplace meltdown has attracted acres of press coverage and hours of broadcast time.
But is it really that unusual? A CIPD report due to be published later this month* suggests that one in three UK employees have reported some kind of argument or conflict at work in the past year. Spats between employees and their line managers have been found to be the most common type of conflict, followed by fall-outs between colleagues within a team.
Now as anyone who has been party to workplace conflict will know, it can have a hugely detrimental effect not just on the people involved but also on the rest of the team. Frosty atmospheres and constant sniping grinds people down and has a real impact on morale – not to mention productivity. The effects in a small business can be particularly devastating.
Of course it’s not realistic to expect that all conflicts can be avoided. It’s a fact of life that people spend a lot of time together at work, and inevitably not everyone will always get along. What no-one wants, however, is for situations to escalate to a point where they end up in a formal grievance, or worse, at tribunal. So what can organisations do to take a more proactive approach and nip workplace conflicts in the bud?
Set the tone
Responsibility for creating a culture of productive and healthy workplace relationships starts at the top. Leaders need to make sure they are role-modelling the kind of behaviours they would like to see in the business. HR also needs to make sure that policies and practices are not inadvertently encouraging conflict. Are reward policies which encourage aggressive pursuit of targets pitting people against each other, for example? Are departments having to compete fiercely against each other for the best people or resources? If the overall atmosphere is one of collaboration rather than competition, it makes it less likely that conflicts will arise.
Look out for warning signs – and act early
Can you cut the atmosphere with a knife when you walk into a particular office or department? Are colleagues constantly carping at each other in team meetings? Is there a lot of whispering around the water cooler? These are all signs that all is not well and that a dispute is festering. Don’t ignore it in the hope it will go away. Small disagreements, if not brought out into the open, can soon build into major dramas. I once worked in a team where a difference of opinion over ventilation (windows open or shut) went from mild irritation to smouldering resentment and ended up in a full blown row in front of clients in the office. If, as a manager and leader, you can see that people are not getting on, you need to talk to them and find out what is causing the problem before things go too far.
Be aware of working styles
The CIPD report found that clashes in personality and working style was the single most prevalent cause of workplace conflict. One of your team likes to plan well ahead and needs to understand the minute detail of every step of a project. Their colleague is more of a ‘big picture’ person who doesn’t appear to understand the meaning of the words ‘deadline’ or ‘schedule’, and likes to keep everything very flexible. The team needs this diversity. Both parties have a particular value to bring. But when you are dealing with extremes in working style people can find working together a bit of a bumpy ride and frustration can soon tip over into outright conflict. Psychometric tests – such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) – can be enormously valuable in helping people understand differences in working style so they can find ways of working together more effectively. Make sure you use an accredited provider for this or any other products, both to administer the test and deliver the feedback.
Provide Training for Managers
Managing conflict is not a skill that comes easily to everyone, so don’t assume that managers will automatically know how to do it. Line managers are often catapulted into senior roles because they have technical or specialist expertise – but they are not necessarily equipped with the soft people management skills they need to successfully lead a team. Provide managers with support and training to give them frameworks and techniques to manage difficult conversations and smooth troubled waters in their team.
It’s also important to pay attention to communication style. Managers often also need help in understanding how to create dialogue within their teams. Dig deep and you will find that an over-reliance on email, for example, is often at the root of workplace conflict. Digital communication comes without the nuances of facial expression and body language, and emails can often come across as terse or dictatorial, even if that’s not what the sender intended. Balancing face-to-face communication with email is a good way to stop these kind of misunderstandings arising. Consider banning internal email for one day a week or month, or for a whole week in order to encourage staff to have face-to-face, or at least phone, conversations, and prevent misinterpretations and misunderstandings.
Professional workplace mediation is a great way to manage conflict and restore good working relationships. There are two possible routes – you can either train staff to become accredited workplace mediators (there are many external providers who offer this), or you can bring in an external mediator. Both options have their pros and cons. An internal mediator will understand your workplace context, while an external mediator may be more trusted by staff to have an independent view. The beauty of mediation – which is now being used by organisations of all sizes – is that it allows people to be heard, encourages them to ‘own’ whatever solution is reached, and enables them to move on from a difficult situation and restore working relationships.
*The findings from the CIPD report ‘Getting Under the Skin of Workplace Conflict’ are reported in the March issue of People Management. The full report will be published later this month, keep a check on www.cipd.co.uk/research.
You may be interested in reading our guide to creating a dream workplace.