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Eight out of ten workers witnessed conflicts in the workplace, so what?

8-OUT-OF-10According to a recently released CROP survey carried out for the Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines agréés (Quebec’s human resources professional association), 79 percent of workers in Quebec often or occasionally witnessed a conflict in their workplace in the last year. The survey also indicates that 62 percent of employees believe their managers are inclined to resolve conflicts, compared to 38 percent who feel they tend to ignore them.

If you would like to read more on the survey results, you can do so here.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the survey did not ask the appropriate questions to really understand the impact workplace conflicts have on employees and the work environment when they are not handled adequately. It would also have been useful to know what employees and managers consider and understand to be a workplace conflict. In addition, what type of negative effects do workers feel when witnessing such conflicts?

However, at least in a general way, we can derive from the survey that workplace conflicts are increasing and that managers are trying to deal with them, whether successfully or not.

When people work together in groups, there are bound to be occasions when individuals disagree and conflicts arise. Whether we like it or not, all of us are going to encounter some type of workplace conflict. What are the common types of workplace conflicts employees, employers, managers and supervisors could encounter in the workplace?

I can think of a few:

  • When co-workers and managers have different styles for completing a job or performing a task or how things should be done
  • When a person’s job depends on someone else’s input, output and cooperation
  • When words and actions are fuelled by emotion and perceptions about another person, their motives and character
  • When issues arise because of differences in gender, educational backgrounds, culture, life experiences and political preferences, among other things
  • When an employee notices the differences in leadership styles and has to change from one supervisor/manager to another
  • When external factors such as economic pressures, customers, suppliers, government funding, domestic violence, family life, etc., creep into the workplace; these factors also have an impact on the way organizations view and treat employees

When disagreements and differences escalate, and are not dealt with, they become very serious workplace problems and may create stress and an unhealthy environment for employees. Whether these disagreements become full-blown feuds or fuel creative problem-solving is also, in large part, up to the person in charge. In general, employers, managers and supervisors are responsible for creating a work environment that enables people to thrive.

Some employees, employers, supervisors and managers decide to avoid the conflict, or wish it away, or become aggressive, abusive, hysterical or find someone to blame, make excuses or pass the buck to somebody else. All of these responses are non-productive and can actually be very destructive. Unresolved or badly handled conflicts could, among others things, lead to feelings of dissatisfaction, unhappiness, hopelessness, depression, physical/emotional withdrawal, resignation from employment, aggression, violent incidents or work-related illnesses and stress. This is why learning to manage conflict is so important.

However, no one is born knowing how to resolve conflicts. Conflict resolution is a set of skills that anyone can learn and should learn, especially if you are going to manage an organization’s most valuable resources: employees.

Behavioural experts indicate that communication is both the cause of and the remedy for conflict; understanding how to effectively communicate, and how to satisfactorily resolve disputes, can lead to a happier, more productive life. In addition, the effective management of workplace conflict requires an understanding of the nature and sources of conflict in the workplace.

So how do you do that? Education and training!

An investment in educating/training employees and your management staff in understanding workplace conflicts, effective communication and conflict resolution skills is not a waste of money; and sometimes it is required by law (i.e., violence and harassment prevention). Indeed, you should consider it essential regardless of your legal obligations.

Although people work best in a setting marked by mutual respect, personal dignity and support which utilizes one’s skills and abilities and encourages further learning, having a set of guidelines prescribing appropriate conduct in the workplace and how to handle workplace conflicts in the form of a policies and procedures also makes good business sense.

Yosie Saint-Cyr
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor

To read more about workplace conflicts and policies and procedures, consult the following First Reference Inc. publications:

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Yosie Saint-Cyr

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 15 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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