Sep 13, 2019 | What’s the first word or phrase that comes to mind when you think of “workplace conflict”? We’re guessing that superfun or awesome or beneficial aren’t exactly at the top of the list. In a recent study, Wiley asked 12,000 Everything DiSC® participants (from executives to individual contributors) this same question, and their responses were pretty much what you’d expect:

It’s no surprise that the general sentiment around workplace conflict is almost exclusively negative. These responses are most likely driven by the many toxic behaviours that provoke conflict and wreak havoc on our collective workplace cultures. We’ve all seen these tendencies rear their ugly heads. Here are just a few of the most common destructive conflict behaviours. Odds are, you’ve experienced (and practised) more than one of them:

Drama: Displaying an over-the-top reaction to a situation.
Gossiping: Engaging in idle talk about someone else’s private affairs.
Passive-aggression: Expressing negative feelings in a subtle or indirect way.
Withdrawing: Drawing back or removing oneself from a situation.

**Stay tuned for more on these toxic behaviours later in this series!**

While there are many other conflict behaviours (detailed in the Everything DiSC® Productive Conflict Profile), we just wanted to skim the surface and highlight a few that we’re willing to bet you’ve come into contact with over the course of your career. The fact is, destructive conflict drags down workplace efficiency. In our same study, 70% of managers, supervisors, directors, and executives said that interpersonal conflict negatively impacts efficiency in their departments. On top of that, when asked how much time they spend dealing with conflict, this group claimed an average of 3.2 hours each week. Over the course of a standard 48 work-week year, that’s nearly a MONTH of time spent dealing with conflict rather than performance-driving initiatives! This is where lacking the social and emotional skills to effectively navigate conflict can cause other areas in an organisation to seriously suffer. We’re all human, and we all experience conflict, but it seems almost incredulous that destructive conflict is occurring on such a widespread, consistent scale.

At the same time, this makes sense. We’ve all fallen prey to the stewing effects of workplace conflict. Think about the emotional impact you’ve endured when someone has called your work (or worse, your character) into question. It can make you feel incredibly anxious, angry, or defeated. It can also make you feel helpless, bitter, or vindictive. You might go from loving your job to covertly browsing LinkedIn for new opportunities in the span of a week, all because you don’t see eye-to-eye with one of your colleagues. 

Destructive conflict has more to do with employee turnover than you might think. Out of the 12,000 people we surveyed, 40% said they have left their jobs in the past due to unhealthy personal conflict on the job. We’re talking about major life changes here, all because of workplace conflict. But we’re also talking about one of the most critical components to a strong organisation: employee retention. We’re in one of the tightest job markets in over 50 years (January 2019’s unemployment rate was at 4%), and quite frankly, organisations can’t afford to lose their people—especially to something like conflict. “The business ramifications are enormous,” writes Theresa Agovino in her SHRM article, To Have and to Hold. “Each employee departure costs about one-third of that worker’s annual earnings, including expenses such as recruiter fees, temporary replacement workers and lost productivity, according to the Work Institute.”

Organisations may find it tempting to focus on metrics like revenue, profit, or growth. But when these organisations take a step back and place emphasis on the things that can’t necessarily be measured—like arming their workforce with the social and emotional skills to effectively navigate conflict—the impact on culture (and, by extension, the bottom line) can be profound. In her Inc.com article, “A Conflict-Free Organization Isn’t Great. It’s Near Death” Margaret Heffernan, author and part-time lecturer at the University of Bath School of Management, writes: “We train people to be expert in managing technology, numbers, finance, and the law. But this most fundamental characteristic of human interaction—conflict—is something we are somehow just supposed to figure out as we go along. But we don’t. And not knowing how to handle it, we prefer to ignore it and hope it goes away. The bad news is that it won’t go away; unresolved conflict festers and grows. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way.”

We agree with Heffernan. It really doesn’t have to be that way. While conflict can be incredibly uncomfortable, it is an inevitable part of human life and our workplaces. It’s also not all bad. Conflict, when productively engaged in, can inspire some of our greatest breakthroughs and innovations.

This modern-yet-human approach to conflict, coupled with the staggering results of our survey, have inspired us to dedicate the next few blog posts to answering this single question: How do we give organisations the tools they need to inspire their people to more effectively address and engage in conflict?

Before we dig into this blog series, we have to acknowledge one universal truth: conflict looks and feels different for each and every one of us. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all, step-by-step conflict resolution approach will often fall short. In our next post (later this month), we’ll take a closer look at conflict through the lens of personality—centred around DiSC®, of course—and start to unravel how each person’s unique behavioural tendencies can shape and influence their responses to conflict. With 69% of our survey respondents saying their job satisfaction would improve if their coworkers handled interpersonal conflict more effectively, we think this information could prove to be invaluable. We’ll start by demonstrating how to shift your culture’s mindset around conflict from evade to engage. Excited? We are, too!