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Paying the Price of Conflict

– By Dan Bobinski

Whenever people work together, there will be conflict. Disagreements occur in even the best working relationships. But how that conflict is addressed can either add to or detract from a company’s bottom line.

In healthy conflict, the issues are put on the table and discussed with objective language. Each party is empowered to state his or her position with confidence that the other party is genuinely listening, wanting to understand. Possible solutions are explored with open minds, and ripple effects are considered and weighed for each solution offered.

It’s an easy process to understand, but more often than not it’s incredibly difficult to do. People want what they want, believe what they believe, and value what they value. They have a clear picture of what their interests, attitudes and values are and how they can be met and the idea that they might be able to meet them any differently can be a long stretch of faith. For many, it’s too long a stretch and they don’t want the hassle.

ap-001As a result, unhealthy conflict is common. In some cases, unhealthy conflict is hidden from sight because one of the parties just gives in. On other occasions the parties become stubborn and debate becomes deadlocked. Another common scenario is when one or both parties become manipulative and begins sabotaging the opposition from behind the scenes.

In unhealthy conflict, personal attacks are common. People can get visibly angry and feelings get hurt. Words can become weapons that leave nasty scars.

In its most subtle form, unhealthy conflict disintegrates into tension. In his book Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni explains how conflict can be a positive thing, but unspoken conflict – what Lencioni describes as tension – is almost always bad because it leads to chronically unresolved problems.

We’ve all heard stories or experienced first-hand conflicts in organisations that led to turf wars, ego battles and even resignations. These are often brushed off as an inevitable result of doing business. But that’s making a big mistake: the cost of unhealthy conflict is much higher than you might think.

Daniel Dana, who founded Mediation Training Institute International, identified seven “hidden” costs of conflict that are often overlooked. And while they don’t all emerge in every situation, every workplace conflict will result in some of these costs being incurred.

1. Wasted time
Productivity is the first casualty of unhealthy conflict. Not only does it affect the individuals involved, but managers have to stop what they’re doing to act as negotiator or peace-maker. Studies vary, but the findings show that between 30% and 42% of the average manager’s time is spent simply dealing with squabbling co-workers.

2. Reduced motivation
Conflict is stressful and stress is energy-sapping. And working in an environment of chronic conflict has been shown to impact not just those involved, but everyone in its vicinity.

3. Absenteeism
Conflict also equates to higher absenteeism rates as individuals try to get away from the stress of being around squabbling colleagues. Moreover, research has also found that people working in companies with high levels of interpersonal conflict are more likely to have injuries at work.

4. Poor decision-making
Healthy conflict is a process in which options are explored and ripple effects are considered and weighed. This rarely happens in unhealthy conflict. Backbiting and sabotage, deadlocked debates, or simply “giving in” either destroy or greatly damage the chances for arriving at good decisions.

5. Loss of valuable staff
Research into the reasons for voluntary resignations has found that chronic unresolved conflict is a decisive factor in at least half of all such departures. That figure is based on studying exit interview data. Several managers I know insist that the proportion in their organisation is even higher.

6. Inefficiency
Productivity often suffers when a company tries to separate two or more people so that they don’t have to interact with each other. But changed structures or procedures are rarely more efficient.

7. Sabotage/theft/damage
If two opposing parties are willing to manipulate and backstab each other to get their way, it’s only a short step to passive aggressive behaviour. What’s more, levels of theft and damage in a company also have a direct correlation to the levels of employee conflict.

The bottom line is that the cost of training for healthy conflict resolution is far, far less than the cost of unresolved chronic conflict. In fact, conflict resolution training brings a real return on investment because although the costs of conflict are hidden, they’re much higher than most of us realise.


Dan BobinskiDan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and a keynote speaker. He’s been providing management and leadership training to global companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 25 years.



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