Is Workplace Conflict Having An Impact On Your Bottom Line?

By Sue Lingard

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Office politics are often avoided at all costs by business owners, who have much more important things on their plate. But when staff conflict arises within your organisation, is it wise to turn a blind eye, or should you do something about it? 

In the CIPD report Getting under the skin of workplace conflict, "four in ten UK employees report some form of interpersonal conflict at work in the last year."

This could cover everything from a disagreement, to accusing someone of bullying, and the report states that “conflict with our line managers (or their bosses) is viewed as being most serious and having the greatest consequences, for example, in demotivation or stress.” 

And there’s no greater place for office politics than in politics itself, as highlighted by the news reports surrounding the recent spat between Donald Trump and US House Speaker Paul Ryan (which puts our own party political disputes in the shade). 

While to an outsider this latest "Trumpism" may seem faintly ludicrous, the truth is that when conflict gets out of hand it can easily poison your whole businesses - cost you money and may even take you as far as the courts.
Donald Trump is clearly no stranger to the importance of conflict resolution, and met with Paul Ryan the following week before sharing an update on Twitter to say; "Great day in DC with @SpeakerRyan and Republican leadership. Things working out really well!" 

But not all employee disagreements will make worldwide news, so why should you be concerned? According to the CBI (Confederation of British Industry), workplace conflict “costs UK business £33 billion per year, taking up 20% of leadership time and potentially losing up to 370 million working days.”

How do you know if you've a problem?

There are some signs to look out for when it comes to spotting conflict within your business, and we’re not talking about listening out for bickering in the kitchen at lunchtime:

1. Staff stop going the extra mile
Keep an eye out for staff who used to go above and beyond and have recently taken a backseat. Perhaps they’ve stopped volunteering information in meetings, missed a few deadlines or take extended lunch breaks. It could be that something’s changed in their home life, or it could be they've lost trust in their manager or their colleague - and are either too afraid or too disengaged to speak up.

In Simon Sinek’s TED talk on “why good leaders make you feel safe”, he discusses the importance of trust. Stating that “when the people feel safe and protected by the leadership in the organization, the natural reaction is to trust and cooperate.”

He explains that “when a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.”

If the working conditions are wrong, staff are forced to expend their own time and energy on issues outside of their job role. When they feel well looked after, they will work harder towards achieving the goals of your organisation. 

2. Sickness levels escalate 
Workplace conflict can lead to mental health issues, which are a huge concern for UK business and account for 70 million sick days a year according to Unum. 

Have you noticed a pattern of absence in certain parts of your business? If so, don't ignore it. There are a now affordabale, easy-to-manage HR systems on the market for smaller businesses - like those provided by Cezanne HR Software - that can help you dig deeper and track absence figures using dashboards, making this issue more visible. 

However, it’s important to remember that there is still a stigma attached to mental health, leading to employees misreporting the reasons behind their absence due to the perception that they will damage their future career prospects by taking time off with stress. 

3. Employees leave unexpectedly
High employee turnover, especially if it's in one division or department, can point to bigger issues and it’s important to get to the bottom of it. Research by Oxford Economics has revealed that it costs over £30,000 to replace a staff member. 

Always conduct exit interviews to ensure you understand the real reasons behind an employee leaving, and don’t write off the issue because it could put performance at risk. 

What can you do about it? 

Once you’re aware of an issue within your organisation, it’s important that you act. Here’s 3 key things to do right away:

1. Develop an appropriate strategy
Conflict arises from a host of different reasons - so you'll need to pick an approach that works. If you've two top sales guys that are winding each other up - and the rest of the office too, take them to one side and talk through the impact of their actions on the business, and make it clear that it can't go on. 

2. Don't stick your head in the sand
You’re the leader, so take the lead. Get out and talk to your staff, perhaps by organising an outing to the pub as people often let slip what the real issues are over a few beers. Make time to stop by people's desks and ask them how they are getting on, and most importantly show an interest. 

If you’d prefer a formal approach, set up a light-touch performance review and give employees a chance to tell you how they see their career progressing, and hear from you what your expectations are from them. If sickness is an issue, try arranging back to work interviews, and make it clear you are genuinely concerned.

This needs to be an ongoing approach and not something you can do once a year.

3. Be prepared to take action
Sometimes issues can't be resolved internally - in which case you may need to bring in mediators or let people go.

It’s important to remember that there is a fine line between conflict and harassment or bullying - which could end up with you as the employer in court. If letting an employee go is the only option, you need to reference employment law and take into account employment protection legislation. 

So, next time you’re in the office and one of your staff members looks upset, or you sense an atmosphere, don't just brush it away. Find out what's the matter. Your business will be much healthier for it.


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