“Time is the only commodity that matters,” – Randy Pausch
It is rare in the working world of managers and financial directors that money would go unaccounted for. However, particularly in business, time is also money. As a mediator, it is hard for me to understand how unmanaged conflict and its consequent waste of time and energy are not only tolerated, but also largely ignored in the workplace. People Resolutions writes in their 2010 Workplace Conflict Survey that 35.5% of Managers claim they do not have the skills to deal with workplace conflict. That is hardly surprising since the same survey reveals that only 11.7% of organizations offer conflict resolution skill training to their managers. CEDR estimates the cost of conflict alone in the British workplace reaches £33 Billion annually. Though this figure seems staggering, consider that according to OPP, the average UK employee spends 2.5 hours a week engaged in conflict and that 25.8% of HR professionals surveyed by People Resolutions claim 10-20% of their working week is spent dealing with conflicts in the workplace.
But to truly understand the impact conflict has on a working environment, one needs to look beyond the direct hourly costs. Time is not the only sacrifice. Hearings before tribunals, filing and processing grievances, and increased absences all cut into productivity. There are also less tangible costs such as erosion of company loyalty, low worker energy levels, and loss of focus by employees. In addition to “company time” being impacted, there is a personal toll on all the individuals involved in the conflict. The effect of conflicts at work on the personal lives of employees can be dramatic. High morale and strong motivation are important factors in the workplace. For instance, Chron.com points out that workers in a motivated workforce will try to improve their own job efficiency, voluntarily take on extra commitments, and have increased patience in the workplace. But, no experienced manager needs to be told what the real benefits of having a driven and committed workforce are to a business of any size.
Mediation Works has created a useful document to help businesses quantify the cost of conflict in their working environments. Once reviewed, the scope of the problem becomes mind-blowing on a national level, and worrisome when quantified in individual businesses. But how does one begin to deal with the conflicts that will inevitably arise in any business? A good place to start would be reading the Gibbons Report. Its recommendations include:
“Challenge all employer and employee organisations to commit to implementing and promoting early dispute resolution, e.g. through greater use of in-house mediation, early neutral evaluation, and provisions in contracts of employment.”
If your business is suffering from specific issues of bullying, or a chronic disintegration of working teams, you may find the following Tedx Talk useful:
The most important step any manager can take is to not ignore the problem and let it fester, but to make him/herself aware and attack the issue early and effectively. Start to investigate the roots of the problem and consider available options. One option is to outsource the entire process to a dispute resolution company, preferably one with direct experience of work-place mediation. Though this can help with specific cases, your company may find it more useful to develop an in-house mediation programme such as those adopted by major companies like BP and BT. You may also attempt to embed Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) culture into your business’s wider conflict management structures. Harvard Negotiation Law Review published a useful article on the merits of shifting company culture towards ADR. If you are a small or family business, you may find it useful to nominate a trusted neutral to be trained as a company mediator, or to develop links with individual mediators in order to negotiate long term contracts.
Scheduling time in the diary that is suitable to all the people involved in a conflict and the mediator(s) can take days. If you are currently experiencing problems with conflict, I’d recommend starting the process of bringing in help as soon as possible. There are also steps you can take to try and alleviate the situation, or more generally, to try and prevent conflicts from spiralling out of control in the first place.
1. Don’t be daunted by conflict. Having an aversion to conflict is normal, but ignoring it will only allow the situation to deteriorate even further. The first piece of advice I’d give to anyone dealing with conflict is to not feel personally threatened or intimidated. A mediator sees all sides of a conflict at once, but also has the ability to walk through the fight unaffected. It is true that mediators sometimes take time to recover from particularly toxic mediations, but they are immune to intimidation and threat during the process itself. This is because they’re neutral, are in command of the process, and have no stake in it’s outcome whatsoever. Managers should not be pushed in any way, but should stand firm and deflect all threats, accusations, and toxicity without reacting in kind. Be open and honest with everyone involved in the process. Don’t allow veiled threats or attacks. A good analogy would be to hold up a mirror to the offending individual, and let them know you recognized their behaviour for exactly what it is.
2. Following on from point 1, do not tolerate any passive aggressive behavior. This is, in my experience, one of the most common and damaging forms of conflict in the modern work-place. There is one effective way of dealing with it as a manager, and that is to call it out, always. Be consistent in this policy of non-tolerance for sniping and side-long attacks. The following clip may be useful to managers dealing with this problem.
3. Don’t close off avenues of redemption and face-saving. Though it may be hard for us to admit, human nature makes most of us guilty of passive-aggressive tendencies, or other unpleasant behaviors in the workplace. It is important not only to nip these problems in the bud, but also, not to alienate people and close off their opportunity to return to the fold. Remember, conflict is a natural human activity, and healthy conflict (and competition) can be beneficial to teams, departments, and businesses. You can try to channel an employee’s energies towards more healthy outlets, and to help them establish parameters by directing their behaviours in a way that is more constructive to the company. Remember that attitude follows behaviour, not the other way around. There are many different ways to guide your workers, and one needs extensive research before attempting it. But, a good place to start your research would be the following clip from Mountainview Learning.
My final piece of advice is to take workplace conflict seriously before it becomes a hindrance to your business. It takes time and energy at the managerial level to effectively deal with issues before they spiral. The effect of dealing with them, rather than palming them away to HR or an external consultant once they escalate, will be fostering the best possible environment for your team to be productive.