April 7, 2016

How do you tackle team conflict?

Workplace conflict is an inevitable part of working life. Therefore, it is inevitable that HR has to get involved in both resolving workplace conflict and in helping managers know how to resolve conflict.

How bad is the problem? A 2015 CIPD survey called ‘Getting under the skin of workplace conflict: Tracing the experience of employees’, found that nearly four in ten UK employees (38%) had experienced some form of interpersonal conflict in the preceding 12 months. Furthermore, 29% cited at least one isolated dispute or incident of conflict and 28% reported ongoing difficult relationships.

While HR needs to accept that conflict exists, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored or allowed to fester. When HR and line managers take action quickly, it is much more likely that any conflict can be resolved quickly and effectively. Left unchecked, conflict soon escalates and can ripple out to affect more individuals than just the initial protagonists.

In order to tackle conflict in its nascent stages, HR and managers need to be able to spot the early warning signs. What are they?

Changes in behaviour
Behaviour change is often one of the first signs that conflict is becoming an issue. That behaviour change could be on an individual or team level. Some signs are more obvious than others – a heated stand off between two individuals in the middle of a meeting, for example, is an obvious sign of conflict. However, some individuals react to conflict by withdrawing. Line managers need to take note if an employee who has always been a proactive, collaborative team member starts withdrawing and not participating properly. Not speaking up in meetings and a reluctance to take part in group activities or with particular individuals are signs of conflict.

Signs of conflict within teams include an atmosphere of tension, the emergence of cliques, a lack of knowledge sharing and collaboration. Reduced attendance at team events and socials are also signs that something is amiss.

Motivation
It may take a while for a drop in motivation to be noticeable, but there are some early signs that it’s on the wane that HR and line managers should be aware of. Are team members not offering the same level of input, enthusiasm and knowledge-sharing that they had displayed formerly? Are managers finding that people are no longer stepping forward to help out on new assignments or to help solve a problem? The CIPD survey showed that 39% of conflicts lead to a drop in motivation.

Productivity
Conflict gets in the way of working relationships and can quickly have a detrimental effect on productivity. Today’s workplace is a very collaborative one so strong, effective interpersonal relationships are really important. Disputes, misunderstandings and awkward behaviour disrupt collaboration and therefore disrupt productivity. If the conflict is such that it is affecting a person’s ability to perform their job effectively, then productivity will suffer. Increased sickness absence also reduces productivity.

Sickness absence
High and sudden rises in workplace absence are obvious causes for concern. Conflict typically causes a big increase in stress levels. It is important that HR and line managers do not accept a sudden increase or prolonged incidences of sickness absence at face value, but endeavour to find out if conflict is the root cause. This obviously needs to be tackled sensitively and without prejudice.

In order to resolve conflict, HR and line managers need to have the necessary skills and aptitudes. We discuss how HR can ensure line managers are able to resolve conflict in our next blog post – Helping line managers resolve conflict.