Ten Ways To Use Conflict To Deal With A Toxic Workplace 

Our new report, Estimating the costs of workplace conflict’, finds that conflict costs the UK £28.5 billion a year, at an average of £1,000 for every employee.

The findings should resonate with everyone, but if you work in a toxic workplace – where relationships are bad, morale is poor, and employee rights and employer responsibilities are disregarded, then here are some very important take-aways from our report:

  • Understand conflict. CIPD data shows that the most serious incidents of conflict focus on ‘differences in personality styles or working’ (46%), followed by ‘individual competence or performance’. It would be a mistake to assume all conflict is about one person falling out with another, but when it is, then, as the report suggests, employers should provide support for approaches “that focus on learning and avoid blame.” Mediation is a good example.    
  • Wake up to the full costs of conflict. In 2018/19 over one third of employees experienced conflict at work, close to 10 million people. This figure is startling, but even more concerning is that almost half of these incidents (nearly 4.6 million) go completely under the radar. This means that people go off work sick, work unproductively and resign without anyone spotting there is a problem at all. 
  • Address management shortcomings. In the foreword to the report, Acas Chief Executive, Susan Clews, says that “‘conflict competence’ is an essential ingredient in good management and it has a positive impact on organisational effectiveness and performance.” Nearly ten years of Acas research on conflict has consistently highlighted a huge problem – the shortfall in skills and confidence on the part of managers to have tricky conversations that could nip problems in the bud. More investment in training will help, as will recruiting managers with people skills.
  • Spot the read across from conflict to employee wellbeing. Of the 10 million who experience conflict every year, almost half suffer stress, anxiety and/or depression. One of the possible silver linings of the pandemic has been the heightened awareness of mental wellbeing, as shown in our recent paper on ‘The road to enlightenment’. Being involved in conflictual situations is undeniably stressful, particularly when things move to formal approaches too quickly. Just think of the words alone – hearing, investigation, tribunal!
  • Plan for a resurfacing of conflict. As our report says, increased home-working and a heightened sense of solidarity may have led to a suppression of conflict at work. But conflict may be about to resurface again. This is certainly backed up by analysis of our helpline data which indicate that calls concerning disputes dipped significantly during the first lockdown, remained suppressed, but are on the way up again. Taking a strategic approach to conflict management is the best response.
  • Tackle bad conflict. In a blog for the ‘Propel Hub’, CIPD’s Rachel Suff made the point that ‘negative conflict’ needs to be taken very seriously. She is talking about issues like sexual harassment and bullying. Worryingly, the CIPD report on conflict at work found that a quarter (24%) of employees think challenging issues such as bullying, and harassment are swept under the carpet in their organisation. This must stop.
  • Channel good conflict. Conflict can act as a creative force, challenging the orthodoxy of working life, for example, whenever it appears to be hanging onto to outdated values and damaging stereotypes. This form of conflict needs to be channelled through effective mechanisms for individual and collective voice. Genuine, meaningful consultation is key.
  • Intervene at the critical stage. Managing conflict is relatively cheap at the informal stage (only £0.25 billion), but quickly escalates once it becomes formal (£12.8 billion). Many organisations are concerned about things getting to the legal stage and managing that effectively, but the real cost, certainly financially, is in the middle part. Take a look at Figure 6 in the report on ‘the escalating costs of conflict’.  
  • Learn how to manage and resolve virtual conflict. This has been a huge learning curve for everyone. We know from the training we have provided for our managers on mental wellbeing, that spotting how someone is coping can be harder in a virtual world. With the promised arrival of hybrid working, our expectations of work and how we value it are changing. Perhaps the psychological contract needs to be revisited?  
  • Remember, conflict costs, but that is only one part of the story. Arguably, the story of the pandemic is the collection of millions of individual stories. Shielding, caring, developing our own personal coping strategies. We have all faced challenges, but some more than others (notably carers, the elderly, and those from ethnic minorities). All these stories need to be heard and engaged with. It’s the best way to combat toxic workplaces and mindsets, and to promote fairer and more inclusive approaches to work.

Author bio: Adrian Wakeling, Senior Policy Adviser, Acas

Photo Credits: Pixabay

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