“People are this organisation’s most valuable resource” is a familiar cry – and one tinged with a degree of irony at a time of swingeing cuts and job losses, particularly in the public sector. It is nonetheless true that the success of most organisations is a product of the collective efforts of valued people.
When people work together there is always friction, frequently tension, and more often than not, underlying conflict. This is to be expected and welcomed. It means the organisation is alive. How we engage with and handle conflict determines whether it is a constructive or a destructive force. Rarely before have employing organisations been under greater stress than now – and rarely before have the opportunities been so great if we get it right and risks so high if we get it wrong.
Handled well, friction, tension and conflict contribute to growth, understanding and development. But under stress – organisational and personal – we tend to revert to type and to respond less constructively to the same pressures.
Friction, instead of being a source of inspiration and initiative, becomes a drain on time, energy and commitment. The healthy debate slides into an unhealthy power struggle. It all becomes more personal than professional. Competitive instead of collaborative. Suspicion replaces trust. Feelings run high and before we know it, conflict is escalating out of control.
Our response has traditionally been to instigate formal procedures in an attempt to regain control – procedures to deal with complaints, grievances, and disputes of all kinds. Most dispute resolution procedures within the workplace are investigative – finding out the facts; evidence-based – who saw what; adversarial – setting complainant against respondent; and evaluative – deciding who was in the right and who in the wrong. Whilst the procedure may, if we are fortunate, lead to a resolution of the conflict at an early stage, all too often it does not address the underlying issues and the cost involved continues to escalate – both in terms of money and damage to relationships. All too often the result is either a win-lose or, more likely, a lose- lose outcome.
A valuable resource is being wasted – a cost that organisations working in difficult times can ill-afford. This kind of unhealthy conflict leads to loss of morale, increased stress at work and poor performance. Unresolved interpersonal conflict at work is cited as one of the top three causes of long-term, stress-related absence.
There is an alternative. Taking a positive approach to working with conflict at work requires people to decide together (while relationships are still functioning fairly well and tensions are being handled constructively) what to do if, and when, things get difficult. It involves planning and preparing for healthy and constructive conflict engagement instead of resorting to adversarial and costly dispute resolution. It means refocusing organisation and workforce development initiatives on making conflict work for us; on making conflict do something useful.
Organisations that adopt a “conflict-positive” approach need to take a holistic look at how to improve the way they engage with and handle conflict at work. Starting with an exploratory phase – perhaps a ‘conflict audit’ – to find out what is currently happening; where are the conflict “hot-spots”; which formal and informal procedures are being used and which are not; before moving on to developing a shared vision for how things could be and a plan for turning the vision into reality. Inclusive dialogue involving all the key players across the organisation will enhance a sense of shared ownership of the vision and commitment to implementing the plan.
Taking a conflict-positive approach can lead to changes in organisational culture and should complement other strategic development objectives. It may have consequences for people management and development – it may reach parts of the organisation other programmes don’t reach.
A conflict-positive organisation of course requires conflict-competent leaders – managers and executives who are able to model new approaches to working with friction, tension and disagreement and to use them positively, leading by example. To develop these approaches requires personal as well as professional and organisational development. No small challenge, but well worth the effort in order to make conflict work for us and to get the best out of the people (that “most valuable resource”) who work in and with organisations in these difficult times.