On average, employees around the world spend about 2.1 hours per week, or over one day per month, dealing with workplace conflict in some way. In the US, that number is higher (2.8 hrs/week) equating to approximately $359 billion in paid hours. Non-profit sectors experience the most workplace conflict, with nearly 48% of employees reporting conflict at work.
What is the actual prevalence of conflict in the workplace, what causes it, and what opportunities are there for positive changes? To answer this, I’ve studied the most comprehensive workplace conflict research I could find, a 2008 study commissioned by CPP Inc., one of Europe’s leading business psychology firms, and Fellipelli, one of South America’s leading business psychology firms. The study included survey data from 5000 employees at all levels of their companies in nine countries around Europe and the Americas and remains some of the most comprehensive and useful research available. Here’s a summary.
Costs of workplace conflict
Conflict often escalates into personal attacks, insults, or absence from work.
- 2.1 hours per week spent dealing with conflict (Belgium was the lowest at 1.3 hrs/wk. Germany and Ireland, the highest at 3.3 hrs/wk).
- 90% of respondents experienced a conflict that escalated, most often into personal attacks and insults, sickness or absence from work, and cross-departmental problems.
- Feeling demotivated, angry, frustrated, nervous, and stressed are the most common psychosocial consequences.
- Negative conflict with customers is risky since it is less costly to keep an existing customer than to replace one who has left dissatisfied.
Causes of workplace conflict
Personality clashes are the number one cause of workplace conflict.
- Personality clashes and warring egos top the list at 48% overall, but much higher in Ireland (66%), the US (62%), and the UK (59%).
- Stress, too much work without enough support, and poor leadership are also significant (around 30%).
Who is responsible to deal with it?
- Everyone! 62% of respondents believed conflict is everyone’s responsibility.
- Surprisingly, only 15% felt that HR should be the ones to deal with workplace conflict.
What should leaders do to improve how conflict is handled?
- Identify and address underlying tensions before things go wrong (54%).
- More informal one-to-one conversations with direct reports (42%).
- Act as mediators (40%).
- Provide more clarity and guidance over healthy behavior (40%).
* Twelve key leadership behaviors were highlighted by respondents in this study. Our PCM and LOD training and certification programs target all 12 areas.
What have companies tried and how did it work?
- Less than half of the employees surveyed (44%) have received any formal conflict training. Belgium and France have the lowest level of workplace conflict training (28% and 27% respectively).
- 27% of those receiving formal training said it helped them feel more comfortable and confident in handling a conflict situation. Confidence is one of the biggest predictors of success (which is why our trainers use NEOS to measure changes in self-efficacy for their conflict communication training programs).
- The most frequent positive outcomes of training were better understanding of others, improved work relationships, and finding a better solution to a problem.
- 39% said training provided no help at all. We concur with the researchers that many conflict-communication training programs do not target the right issues and skills, especially personality differences and communication skills.
- Conflict can generate positive outcomes. Three quarters (76%) of respondents had seen conflict lead to something positive.
In a nutshell
- Conflict is costly.
- Personality and ego clashes are the top cause.
- Everyone is responsible.
- Coaching and mentoring through daily conversations is the key to improvement.
- Conflict can be positive and requires targeted training at all levels of an organization.
Companies will make the most gains around workplace conflict by following these guidelines;
- Implement formal training targeted on understanding and communicating with different personalities.
- Focus not just on individual competencies, but skills to coach, facilitate, and mentor others during difficult conversations.
- Adopt a pro-active approach that recognizes conflict is inevitable, and is a source of energy for positive outcomes.
Train these Core Competencies
Search for training programs that assess, develop, and measure these competencies:
- Self-awareness and recognition of positive and negative conflict in self and others.
- Awareness of personality, communication, and motivational differences in self and others.
- Ability to assess and respond to individual differences in and out of conflict.
- Ability to lead self and others out of drama and into positive conflict conversations.
Copyright 2017, Next Element Consulting
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Conflict Without Casualties: A Field Guide for Leading With Compassionate Accountability. This book is the foundation for our Leading Out of Drama program, a comprehensive guide for balancing compassion and accountability to build relationships and cultures that are safe, curious, and consistent.