Dealing with the effects of workplace conflict is often one of most difficult and persistent issues HR and EAP professionals face today. Not being able to effectively identify conflict in the workplace and resolve it before the greater working environment is impacted leaves your organisation vulnerable to conflict´s debilitating and potentially disastrous effects.

The intent of this article is to help you identify workplace conflict, understand how it arises and how to most effectively resolve it, as well as recognise the benefits of resolving conflict at its early stages.

Workplace Conflict

Identifying Workplace Conflict

Identifying workplace conflict is not always as easy as one might think. Conflict is regularly associated with acute and isolated incidents such as outbursts, arguments, or verbal/physical altercations. While these examples can be indicators of conflict, they may not be. When seeking to identify conflict in the workplace, it is important not to mistakenly identify “disagreement” as “conflict.”

Disagreement and differences of opinion are regular occurrences not only in the workplace but in our everyday lives. In fact, disagreement is often the vehicle by which creative and cutting edge ideas are generated. The process of developing, defending, and reconciling opinions is likely the sign of a healthy and vibrant workplace. Even seemingly aggressive and intense disagreement should initially be looked upon as normal and acceptable. Do not make the mistake of stifling a creative and exuberant environment by identifying disagreement as conflict.

Conflict is something different all together. Where disagreement can be an expression of confidence, enthusiasm, or caring, conflict is an expression of frustration, self-consciousness, and anger. This brings us to the primary identifier of conflict: Those in conflict are unable to sustain a productive and stable exchange. What does this look like? Picture an interaction between two or more individuals where at least one person’s participation becomes increasingly rigid and terse as the interaction continues. There is often a “tipping point” where someone abruptly cuts off the interaction or erupts with anger. In both instances, the tipping or breaking point is usually taken as “unreasonable,” “inappropriate,” or an “over reaction” by those on the receiving end and can lead to a vicious-circle of conflict driven exchanges. As those of us who enter into organisational working environments on a daily basis know, it is precisely this vicious-circle of exchanges that is disruptive to our workplace and destructive when left unresolved.

Unfortunately, workplace conflict cannot always be easily identified by isolated interactions. Moreover, as a HR, or EA professional, you are rarely present to observe exchanges. While you can rely on the account of others, you can also identify conflict in the workplace by being aware of and watching for the following signs of its presence: Low morale and productivity; repeated communications from the same employee or manager, even when the communications appear ordinary; repeated time spent dealing with the same department or team, regardless of the reason; transfer requests from productive employees; concerns raised by employees regarding other employees, managers, teams, or departments; and client or customer feedback expressing dissatisfaction or inconsistencies with the organisation´s operating procedure, particularly when there have been no changes.

You may already be watching for each of these events; however, keeping in mind that conflict could be driving these kinds of occurrences may lead you to a different approach when dealing with them. For example, if you discover that a request to transfer is being fuelled by conflict, you can see to it that the situation gets addressed directly as opposed to simply addressing the symptom. Addressing the symptom does nothing to resolve the conflict or protect the organisation. To the extent you can, always be on the lookout for conflict that mimics as ordinary HR and EA issues. Asking a few extra questions will surprisingly reveal the presence of conflict more often than not.

Next pending edition: How Workplace Conflict Occurs.

Need assistance or feedback? Don’t hesitate to make contact with me.

About the Author

Kylie Head is a mediation services specialist with twenty years of experience in senior management roles.

In addition to mediating disputes, Kylie acts as a facilitator resolving in-house conflict within business, along with working one-on-one to coach individuals through conflict, life transitions and problem solving. Kylie is experienced in providing mediation services with On the Table to parties where the issues are complex and intractable.

On the Table helps people & teams have conversations.

On the Table encourages people and organisations’ to connect and to have dialogue in a way that is meaningful and constructive.

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  • peaceful conflict resolution and mediation
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  • conflict management coaching
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