Updated: Oct 31, 2020
There are many reasons why conflict arises in diverse and high-pressured workplaces.
But, when conflict is unskillfully managed and remains unresolved, the impact can be devastating for employees and the organisation.
Conflict should be anticipated in our workplaces, however, it is mostly unwelcome and ends up not being managed skilfully.
To not resolve conflict, to let it linger, negatively impacts interpersonal relations, destroys trust and increases anxiety in the organisation, making it an unhealthy place to work.
The more commonly discussed consequences of these stressors and poor interpersonal relationships are:
high levels of disengagement and.
There are also more strategic factors that are impacted by unresolved conflict, preventing workplaces from functioning at an exceptional level.
When left too long, unresolved conflict becomes a norm in the work environment and settles itself into the culture, which makes dealing with it much more difficult.
Once the organisation’s culture adjusts to and accepts the presence of unresolved conflict, it no longer is articulated or addressed constructively and skillfully.
Here are six key areas where unresolved conflict undermines business:
Information flow is the lifeblood of any organisation, and good interpersonal relations are the channel along which information either flows quickly and efficiently or slowly, or is completely blocked.
There are three vital questions to which employees consistently need information:
Where is the organisation going?
How are we doing?
What needs to be done to achieve the desired goals?
When employees do not handle conflict skilfully, information starts being held back, or it surfaces as a refusal to listen. This results in cliques forming, which further stifle communication and collaboration.
The informal gossip channels in any organisation are much more active and toxic when unresolved workplace conflict is prevalent.
Every team or organisation needs a sense of unity to work as a unit. Not dealing with conflict effectively severs the felt sense of unity in an organisation.
This perpetuates silo working, which in turn impacts the quality and speed of delivery within the organisation.
In our uncertain world, the level of collaboration between all functions in an organisation is a string differentiator from competitors. Collaboration across the end-to-end value chain provides more consistent and sustainable delivery of services or products.
When there is a lack of alignment in the work environment, the different departments work along differing agendas which exacerbates the forces of tension and also negatively impacts the overall ability to deliver against the organisation's potential.
Conflict usually stems from different or opposing views being raised about important topics.
Having different views is a natural and important phenomenon in organisations, however, when these opposing views have not been given the opportunity to be skillfully worked through, allowing alignment to be found, they disrupt the organisation’s ability to move in one cohesive direction.
Effective problem solving and innovation in our complex world requires many different voices and views to be heard to support the sense-making in these creative conversations.
The problems being addressed are often not isolated to one root cause, they are systemic in nature, and so demand broader input.
To move things forward requires open, candid and skilful challenge so that "out of the box” thinking can take place.
Unresolved conflict sits in the atmosphere and inhibits the free-spirited and creative conversations that true problem solving and innovation requires to serve the organisation in the best possible way.
Unresolved conflict shows up as different players not showing up or simply holding back, preventing problems from being solved for the long term.
It also shows up through finger-pointing, pushing the teams into a blame and defend game, which drains the creative juices out of the teams and organisation.
I am sure you have witnessed many meetings in which everyone around the table agrees to what has been proposed. There is a lot of silent head nodding, actions are agreed upon, and then, nothing happens.
After actions don’t get done, all sorts of explanations are provided as to why the actions could not be followed through on, or even didn’t make sense in the meeting, but these points were not raised earlier.
You might also find meetings after ‘the meeting’ in which all the agenda points are discussed with a much greater level of engagement than in the actual meeting. These conversations however do not lead to constructive collaboration or decision making, but stone wall the much needed process for cohesive decision making.
When the level of commitment and ownership in an organisation dwindles, the organisation is in for a hard battle ahead.
Unresolved conflict tends to move people apart rather than bring them together.
The organisation needs its people to come together. When employees feel they are part of something bigger, and their unique voices and views matter to the organisation, commitment levels are at their best.
The tensions of unresolved conflict becomes an invisible force in organisations that no one feels they have the capacity to do something about. The presence of this seemingly invincible force depletes commitment levels over time.
Knowing and seeing the devastating impact that unresolved conflict has on the work environment, there is an urgent need to focus more on conflict resolution skills.
Our biggest challenge with conflict is that we are conflicted about how to deal with conflict!
Most people have a natural tendency to avoid conflict and conflicted situations, so it is really important that conflict is talked about more openly, and conflict resolution skills are taught throughout the organisation.
There are a myriad of ways of resolving workplace conflict; here are some easy ways that can be picked up immediately:
Creating clear agreements on how conflict is handled within the workplace is essential in setting a standard around conflict. It will prevent the escalated impact explored in the above areas.
Conflict is actually a creative process in which new ideas are wanting to emerge, and so the focus must be on freeing up the creativity inherent in the process of conflict.
When organisational leaders acknowledge that all of their employees are generative, intelligent and creative human beings, it enhances the organisation’s ability to be more curious about conflict. Curious about what new ideas are trying to emerge, rather than avoiding staying with the process.
Engaging with conflict more intentionally and creatively, the conflict process allows employees to bring their varied views to the creative process in which they discover what new ideas are trying to emerge. Working from this principle strengthens employee relations, which in turn serves the organisations ability to thrive.
Become conscious of your own aversion to certain types of conflict, even the most subtle ones, and bring this awareness into your team conversations. Once this topic is discussed more openly, the avoidance and shyness starts to fall away, giving rise to more constructive engagement about unresolved conflict.