How often do you experience conflict at work? According to a poll by Civility in America, 43% of American workers have experienced incivility and 38% say there is increasing disrespect in the workplace. An additional survey, commissioned by CPP, Inc., indicates that employees around the world deal with conflict, on average, 2.1 hours a week, or one day a month. In the US, that number rises to 2.8 hours a week. More Information
When conflict occurs, many of us seek to minimize the conflict by avoiding the person we had conflict with, or by avoiding the situation that led to the conflict. Others – those who are by nature competitive – fight back with anger and hostility, thereby escalating the conflict. Both responses are costly to the employer. The conflict-avoidant employees, by pulling out of the conflict, are depriving their employers of their skills and ideas. The competitive employees who tend to escalate the conflict, are expending time and energy on the conflict rather than on their work. Indeed, according to researcher and psychologist Daniel Dana, “[u]nresolved conflict represents the largest reducible cost in many businesses, yet it remains largely unrecognized.”
Remember that conflict by itself is not a problem. Disagreement and conflict open opportunities for growth and new ways of thinking. It is unresolved conflict – conflict left to simmer and boil – that leads to problems for individuals and organizations.
Why is unresolved conflict in the workplace so commonplace? Therapist and mediator, Bill Eddy, believes we live in a culture of blame and disrespect. “[T]elevision, movies, the internet and even newspapers emphasize the misbehavior of individuals more than issues of real substance: Who said what disrespectful statement to whom today? Who walked off a TV show or out of a political meeting?” Another reason for our conflict ridden workplace is that due to our weakened economy, people are having to work longer hours and with greater responsibility, the stress of which can lead to conflict. Finally, the increasing use of teams in the workplace, though a positive development, also creates the possibility of increased unresolved conflict.
Options for coping with conflict in the workplace are several. First, employers should consider offering conflict resolution training to their employees. Learning more about the causes of conflict, the nature of conflict, and techniques for approaching those we are in conflict with, can make a significant difference. Second, conflict coaching – a relatively new option – is a one-on-one process that helps individuals develop strategies and new approaches to dealing with a particular conflict, or with conflict in general. Conflict coaching has been used successfully at Temple University as a supplement to mediation services, and at large corporations such as IBM. Employers should consider offering this option to their employees.
Third, mediation, especially if used early on in a dispute, and prior to litigation being filed, can be a successful and satisfactory dispute resolution process. Mediation is a confidential process in which the parties take an active role in resolving their dispute and reaching a mutually acceptable solution. The process is informal and private. Unlike a judge, the mediator does not impose a particular solution, but rather facilitates the parties’ own communication and helps them create a mutually acceptable agreement. This process is highly cost-effective, especially when compared to the cost of litigation. Costs are reduced because in the case of pre-litigation mediation, there is no need for extensive preparation and presentation by attorneys; nor is there any need for transcripts, post-hearing briefs, or a written decision.
One of the benefits of mediation is that the tools developed in mediation can help the parties approach other disputes in the same fashion. In fact, the potential exists with mediation to transform the groups used in mediation into groups organized for the purpose of resolving other issues in the employee – management relationship.
Research has shown offering employees a variety of options for resolving conflict can improve efficiency in the workplace and improve overall morale. Business owners and organizational managers should consider conflict management training, conflict coaching, and mediation as options for improving the workplace.