Conflict can be a force for good

Mar 12 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

People who are passionate about their work are generally happier and perform better, while conflict, rather than solely being a divisive, damaging force, can often spur teams on to greater heights of performance and innovation, according to two studies.

New research by Kingston University in Britain and the HR body the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found great leadership is as much about inspiration and passion as it is about perspiration and hard work.

The study looked at behaviours in four organisations, two private sector and two from the public sector, in an attempt to help employers pinpoint the factors that influenced high levels of loyalty and commitment, and then look at how these could lead to happier and more productive staff.

At the same time, Canadian research has argued that conflict, where managed properly, can actually benefit an organisation and be a catalyst for better solutions, innovations, increased motivation and other workplace benefits.

The UK research argued that many managers become too bogged down in strategy, policy and process and fail to pay enough attention to staff morale.

Professor Katie Truss, director of Kingston University's Centre for Research in Employment, Skills and Society, said. "When it comes to inspiring people we need to appeal to their emotional, not just their rational side.

"Helping people connect with their roles is just about such common sense principles as providing a good work-life balance, listening to staff, providing people with the time and opportunity to share ideas and, most importantly, recognising and rewarding them for their contribution to your organisation," she added.

In the scramble to cut costs, it was all too easy for managers to forget the need to be passionate and motivate staff.

"The economy will bounce back eventually but there's absolutely no point in coming through the other side with a workforce that feels undervalued and frustrated Ė organisations need to invest in their staff right now," said Truss.

Employees needed to be shown, and reminded again and again, that their work had real value, added Mike Emmott, employee engagement adviser at the CIPD.

"People who are happy in their work perform better, they 'talk up' their organisation, are more loyal and tend to recommend the organisation to others," he said.

The research takes forward a study conducted in 2006 that questioned 2,000 workers about their working lives.

This found that, while women spent more time feeling worried at work than their male counterparts, they were also generally more emotionally-attached to their jobs.

What both studies illustrated was the absolutely vital role that employee engagement played in the workplace when it came to trying to improve levels of organisational and individual productivity, Emmott explained.

"The unfortunate fact is that few employees feel a strong sense of loyalty in their jobs while most do not feel they are important within their organisation at all and, unless this issue is addressed head-on, organisations will continue to under-perform," he said.

The Canadian study, meanwhile, by Edmonton organisation Psychometrics Canada, polled 350 HR professionals and concluded that more than three quarters felt conflict could actually lead to a better understanding of others.

More than half felt it led to better solutions to problems and challenges, while four out of 10 argued that it improved team performance and nearly a third said it increased motivation.

More than a fifth said conflict at times also helped to drive forward innovation.

"This research clearly shows the positive and negative effects that conflict has in business", said Shawn Bakker, psychologist and researcher at Psychometrics Canada.

"If organisations are to turn conflict into improved professional relationships and better organizational performance, they must invest the time to train and coach their employees to deal with different point of views, personalities and work styles," Bakker added.

But if handled badly, conflict could also be immensely damaging to the workplace, Bakker warned.

In many cases conflict had severely crippling effects on productivity, staff engagement and working relationships.

Virtually all the HR professionals polled Ė 99 per cent Ė said they dealt with conflict.

The most common causes of conflict were warring egos and personality clashes, cited by more than eight out of 10.

Poor leadership was the next most common cause of conflict, listed by nearly three quarters, followed by a lack of honesty, stress and clashing values.

Three out of four said they had seen conflict lead to personal insults and attacks, and four out of 10 had witnessed someone being fired as a result.

More than eight out of 10 had seen conflict lead to someone leaving the organisation, and more than three quarters had seen it result in sickness or absence.

"These figures should be a strong alert to industry leaders that poorly managed conflict could be causing significant problems in their organisations," said Mark Fitzsimmons, managing director at Psychometrics Canada.

"We expect conflict to grow in the current economy as one of the biggest causes of conflict rises Ė stress," he added.

The study also uncovered a serious gap between the importance of conflict management skills and the effectiveness of current leaders.

Nine out of ten of those polled rated the ability to handle conflict as either a very important or critical leadership skill.

However, while fewer than a fifth said their current management and leadership was not effective at dealing with conflict, nearly two thirds said they were "only somewhat" effective.

When it came to how managers should deal more effectively with conflict, key recommendations included: managing toxic individuals more firmly, providing more clarity about their expectations and modelling appropriate behaviour.