3 Reasons You Should be Talking about Conflict in the Workplace

Is conflict helping or hurting your workplace?  Does this even seem like a plausible question to you? I understand if it doesn’t – the term “conflict” generally has a negative connotation, something to be avoided or resolved immediately before it finds itself in a courtroom and costing a business millions.

The truth is that you DO have conflict in your workplace at one time or another. Conflict naturally occurs when two or more people have divergent ideas, needs, and wants. It’s normal, inevitable and every organization experiences it. This is why you should be talking about conflict in your workplace – because unaddressed or poorly managed conflict could cost your business in more ways than you might think.

1.     The quantifiable costs of unaddressed conflict

Case in point:  Management of a manufacturing company came to us with a situation of destructive disputes within the work teams that were leading to systems-wide communication breakdown. Workflow was disrupted, productivity lagged, morale tanked. We assessed the pre-engagement cost of conflict at over $16,000, and ongoing costs per month to be $4,000.

The range of potential costs to a business with unresolved conflict is no secret: from higher employee absenteeism, increased talent turnover, wasted time and opportunity, lower or poorer productivity, to legal or mediation fees associated with conflict resolution.

2.     The innovation costs of unmanaged conflict

What is less understood are the costs of unaddressed conflict in lost opportunities for innovation. An ‘ostrich-head-in-the-sand’ approach can create a workplace culture in which employees feel hesitant about contributing their ideas, not feeling confident to express themselves without the risk of getting shut down in the (unspoken) name of avoiding conflict. So creative ideas are stifled and never see the opportunity to be surfaced, vetted, discussed, and certainly not implemented. 

Workplace teams also can become characterized by resistance to change, lack of focus or urgency, diminished problem-solving capacity, complacency, lowered job motivation and productivity. Eventually this culture can lead to a reduced innovation premium on the business’ value and brand, negatively affecting growth and stockholder value.

Forbes contributor Mike Myatt says: “Developing effective conflict resolution skill sets are an essential component of building a sustainable business model.”

3.     The power of seeing conflict as opportunity

I agree that addressing the hard and soft costs of conflict by developing a conflict resolution skill set is extremely important. I’d like to take it a step further. Let’s look at the reverse of the client situation I just described.

What if you were to see conflict not just as something to be resolved, but as your ‘new normal’?  It’s a natural part of your workplace, so it becomes a matter of mindset, of recognizing what exists and using it proactively.  In fact, in my experience working with what we call Constructive Conflict, I see all the time how powerful conflict can be as a business tool.

The scenario for a business that taps into and harnesses conflict looks like this:

      A workplace culture that is productive, innovative, and positive

      Improved efficiency and less management time spent dealing with negative conflict issues

      Teams that are cohesive and collaborative, freely exchanging creative ideas, contributing enthusiastically and respectfully

      Proactive conflict capacity-building that helps teams stay nimble, and remain curious and creative even in challenging circumstances

      A business brand that is known for growth, innovation, quick market entry, and a magnet to high-quality employees

Facing head-on the reality of conflict and incorporating conflict management into your business’ organizational structure, can go a long way to mitigate the costs of conflict run amok. Go that extra distance to see conflict as an opportunity, and you become a tip-of-the-spear business that values innovation – and your people – in a proactive way.  An important note here:  Unplanned-for or haphazard use of conflict can yield positive benefits, but also carries with it the greater risk of negative outcomes. Enter into Constructive Conflict with sound planning, time-tested processes and the right professional support.

By the way, there is a happy ending to our client story or, better yet, a new beginning:  In less than 6 months, teams were back to work and productive; the leadership team was re-engaged and sustaining more tightly-defined mission and goals which everyone followed with enthusiasm; and the next quarter’s sales and profit reached the highest levels in company history. 

Share with us your thoughts on embracing workplace conflict in the comments below. And if you are wondering if conflict may be leaking dollars or creativity from your business, you can learn more about how to calculate the costs of conflict or estimate innovation here.