What's so scary about conflict at work?

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Tough conversations can come at us in any guise. They arise all too easily, yet dealing with them is something that leaves most of us cold at the prospect. But why?

The universal signs

Studies suggest that 60-80 percent of all difficulties in organisations come from strained relationships among employees

If these are left unaddressed they can only fester and build – but how can you recognise that trouble is brewing before it becomes a real issue?

Consider the 'observable behaviours' of your colleagues. Have you noticed any of the above?

If so, chances are they have been caused either by a break in the psychological contract (expectations of either manager or employee have not been met) or some form of change (e.g. in leadership or team set-up, procedures, working conditions, job scope or personal circumstances).

So, to prevent the negativity from spreading, we have only one choice: tackle it with a timely and well-prepared conversation.

Emotions and assumptions

The challenge is that, by and large, we will prefer to leave tricky interpersonal clashes well alone because we usually can’t anticipate how the other party will react – we are hard-wired to respond to negativity and the ancient part of our brain (the amygdala) still tries to keep us safe by generating 'flight, fight or freeze' reactions. However, this response pattern is often unhelpful because it is based on an assumption that everything is dangerous until proven otherwise (e.g. that our employee, colleague or manager will react poorly) and a further assumption that we won’t be able to control the situation to our liking. We're therefore giving ourselves more excuses not to intervene. According to the Workplace Conflict Survey (UK), a staggering 55% of managers don’t see it as their responsibility to deal with conflict. Just imagine the number of proverbial fingers in ears across the country!

But leaving it up to HR is not the answer (and certainly is not fair for the HR function), so how can you step up and fix, or even pre-empt, it yourself?

The first stage is to stop assuming. After all, a person's behaviour will always say more about them and their own internal situation, than it does about you. You can't control their emotional state, but you can work on your own emotional responses and in turn have a positive impact on the other person.

Self-awareness and proactive conflict management

Our associate and former client trainer, Sharon Jones, has presented and written at length about the origins, implications and resolutions of workplace conflict.

To read more about the cost of conflict and what practical steps you can take to mitigate any emotional disruption by understanding yourself and others better, download our whitepaper, “Tackling Tough Conversations: without resorting to fisticuffs”.

Filled with stats, tips and takeaways, the whitepaper is a handy reference guide for anyone facing tricky meetings or colleague conflict.

Louise Basu, HR Director

Louise Basu, HR Director

Louise joined Thomas in 2013 following a HR career within consumer finance and the pharmaceutical industry. Louise is passionate about ensuring the HR function is both approachable and integrated across the business, driving the Thomas values through workplace engagement. Louise is CIPD qualified with a French and Spanish degree.