WORKPLACE CONFLICT AND HOW BUSINESSES CAN HARNESS IT TO THRIVE.
This research project was carried out in May 2008 and analyzed workers’ attitudes about conflict. It questioned 5,000 full-time employees in nine countries around Europe and the Americas: Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Our study found that the majority of employees (85%) have to deal with conflict to some degree and 29% do so “always” or “frequently.” In Germany this latter figure jumps to 56%, while employees in Ireland (37%) and the US (36%) also spend a significant amount of time managing disputes.
The level at which most conflict is observed is between entry-level/front-line roles (cited by 34% of respondents), but conflict also exists at the most senior levels: one in eight employees (12%) say that disagreements among their senior team are frequent or continual.
The primary causes of workplace conflict are seen as personality clashes and warring egos (49%), followed by stress (34%) and heavy workloads (33%). Culture also plays a part in the perception of causes: as Brazilian workers are more likely to see a clash of values as a major cause of conflict (24%). In France, 36% of employees saw a lack of honesty as a key factor, compared with a global average of 26%.
Unsurprisingly, poorly managed conflicts have a cost attached to them: the average employee spends 2.1 hours a week dealing with conflict. For the US alone, that translates to 385 million working days spent every year as a result of conflict in the workplace. One in six (16%) say a recent dispute escalated in duration and/or intensity, only 11% of those surveyed have never experienced a disagreement that escalated.
Various negative outcomes arise from conflicts. 27% of employees have seen conflict lead to personal attacks, and 25% have seen it result in sickness or absence. Indeed, nearly one in ten (9%) even saw it lead to a project failure. 41% of employees think older people handle conflict most effectively, so life experience evidently helps people become more effective. The skill of leaders in this regard is the key determinant, however. Seven out of ten employees (70%) see managing conflict as a “very” or “critically” important leadership skill, while 54% of employees think managers could handle disputes better by addressing underlying tensions before things go wrong.
However, there is an evident discrepancy between how well managers think they handle conflict and how well they actually do: a third of managers (31%) think they handle disagreements well, but only 22% of non-managers agree. Furthermore, nearly half of non-managers (43%) think their bosses don’t deal with conflict as well as they should, compared to only 23% of managers who share this view.
Training is the biggest driver for high-quality outcomes from conflict. Less than half (44%) of all those questioned have received training in how to manage workplace conflict. This figure rises to 57% in the US and 60% in Brazil. Moreover, 72% of Belgian workers and 73% of those in France have had none.
Where training does exist, it adds value: over 95% of people receiving training as part of leadership development or on formal external courses say that it helped them in some way. A quarter (27%) say it made them more comfortable and confident in managing disputes and 58% of those who have been trained say they now look for win–win outcomes from conflict.
85% of people change the way they approach conflict over the course of their working lives; they become more proactive and take it less personally as a result of experience.
Among all employees, 76% have seen conflict lead to a positive outcome, such as better understanding of others (41%) or a better solution to a workplace problem (29%). This figure rises to 81% and 84% in the US and Brazil, respectively – the countries where training is most common. Belgium and France, where employees experience the least training, also have the lowest incidence of positive outcomes. This shows a clear link between training in conflict management and conflict’s impact as a catalyst for positive change.
Our study demonstrates that destructive conflict is not something organizations anywhere should accept as an inevitable feature of working life. If organizations invest in building the awareness of self and others on which better relationships depend, they will see the energy created by interpersonal friction generate sparks of creativity, rather than consuming flames. HR, leaders, and employees must all accept their responsibility for becoming competent conflict managers.
WORKPLACE-CONFLICT-AND-HOW-BUSINESSES-CAN-HARNESS-IT-TO-THRIVE.pdf (5.7 MB)